Murky water sloshes quietly against a stone wall. The scene is peaceful with nothing but the quite ebb and flow of the river to break the silence. Suddenly, a disturbance: the water starts to rise and fall, angrily smashing against the stones. But no matter how hard it pushes, the wall stands unmoved.
The opening shot of A Most Wanted Man describes protagonist Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman). His calm, ordinary surface is his defense against a tumultuous underworld of espionage. He represents the everyman, someone who treats his job as routinely as any plumber or electrician. No matter the circumstance, he’s there to get the job done. The difference, of course, is that he hunts terrorists for a living.
Bachmann’s head is often buried in a sea papers. A thin trail of smoke inevitably issues from his mouth up past his furrowed brow. Hoffman was born for this role. His affected German accent feels utterly natural as he transforms his passion for acting into Bachmann’s lust for antiterrorism operations. His gruff, unshaven face masks a master thinker, and, ultimately, a kind soul. And no matter who gets in his way on his mission to stop Chechen terror suspect Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), he remains an indomitable wall, resolute against a roiling sea of treachery and backdoor dealings.
His performance is bolstered by a stellar (largely female) supporting cast. Nina Hoss is wonderfully nuanced as Bachmann’s number two, Erna Frey; her longing glances reveal a deep but unrequited affection for Bachmann despite his preoccupation with work. Robin Wright is equally compelling as American attaché Martha Sullivan, operating as an intellectual sparring partner for Bachmann. Rachel McAdams surprises with her affectingly vulnerable turn as German refugee lawyer Annabel Richter. Her presence provides the anchor for the compassion we develop for both Bachmann and Karpov.
Beyond the strength of its cast, A Most Wanted Man‘s visual aesthetic is perhaps its greatest asset. Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme delivers near-perfect camerawork throughout. His and director Anton Corbijn’s acumen for symbolism adds layers to every performance and complexity to an already tightly-woven plot.
In one sequence, banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) makes a hard choice on the veranda of his multi-million dollar home. He holds a scotch on the rocks as he stares out over the bay, Dafoe’s trademark visaged consternation displaying Brue’s struggle with morality. But it’s Delhomme and Corbijn who elevate the scene. As Brue finishes his drink, he throws the ice cubes out onto the patio. Without words, alea jacta est.
In another imposing sequence, Delhomme places a static camera in an interrogation room just behind Annabel Richter’s bed. The scene is monochrome, a bleak grey that spells despair as only antiseptic bureaucracy can. Bachmann enters, sits down and begins to monologue. Annabel starts to move out of the frame and suddenly, a shock of pink. As the only colored object in the room, Bachmann’s tie pierces through the grey and alludes to a beating heart beneath his cynical governmental shell.
Not all of Delhomme camerawork is golden, however. Although it fades after the opening scenes, Delhomme treats plodding office work as if he were shooting a Bourne film. He uses an excitable shaky cam technique that seems at odds with the pacing of John le Carré’s world. In this sense, it is hard not to compare A Most Wanted Man to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
In that film, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema uses painfully still frames to gradually mount tension which encourages the audience to examine the characters on a shot-by-shot basis. This seems like a better approach to le Carré’s slow burn style than Delhomme’s sporadic kineticism. Thankfully, instances of Delhomme’s overbearing are far and few between and rarely distract from what is otherwise masterful cinematography.
Corbijn communicates emotion through facial expression more than dialogue. It is therefore important that every actor is at the top of their game. Without the nonverbal subtlety of Wright’s stern combativeness, Dafoe’s tortured countenance or Hoffman’s raw energy, the movie would live or die on the strengths of its plot alone. That might have been enough for a decent adaptation, but Corbijn doesn’t settle. Under their director’s tutelage, his leads take a good script and turn it into a great film.
A Most Wanted Man is an excellent example of wonderful chemistry both in front of and behind the camera. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that it also reminded me of the loss of one of the greatest actors of his generation. The world is a darker place without Philip Seymour Hoffman. Like Bachmann, his commitment to his work was unparalleled, his genius undeniable and his impact tangible. The put-upon spy is a noble spirit pit against an unforgiving world. As a monument to Hoffman’s memory, I cannot think of a better proxy.
Movie Verdict: Win