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Under the spell of masterly spy Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man

Philip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of a cynical spy in his last feature role before death is sublime

Published on Aug 13, 2014 6:49 PM
 
A Most Wanted Man, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, is an authentic take on spycraft today. -- PHOTO: CATHAY- KERIS FILMS

Review - Thriller - A MOST WANTED MAN (NC16)

122 minutes/Opens tomorrow/****1/2

The story: Hamburg, Germany's second largest city, is where the Sept 11 attacks were planned and remains a hive of suspected terrorist activity, keenly watched over by domestic and foreign intelligence agencies. The arrival of Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen Muslim terror suspect in the city, has German intelligence officer Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his team going into overdrive, especially after Karpov contacts human rights lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams). Looking over their shoulders are their more powerful American colleagues, represented by operative Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright). Based on the 2008 John le Carre novel.

Gunther Bachmann is a world-weary mess, a cynic who has let his job consume his life. He is as much a skilled bureaucrat as he is a spy, for he works within a system driven by the needs of glory-seeking managers as it is by the ideals of keeping the world safe from terrorism.

Bachmann is played by the sublime Hoffman in his last feature role before his death. He is George Smiley's (le Carre's celebrated British fictional spy) crumpled, middle-European cousin, a pack-a-day man who shares Smiley's gift of patience in playing the long game.

Unlike Smiley, who applied his Oxbridge mind and gentleman's code of conduct in the game of spy-versus-spy, Bachmann lives in a world of extraordinary renditions, immigrant populations into which enemies can melt and a superpower ally ready to burn him and his team for the sake of one capture.

2011's le Carre adaptation Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy delved into the paranoia at Britain's MI6 branch. This work, however, is less psychological and more procedural, as well as being the most astute, authentic-looking analysis of spycraft as it is practised today.

This film could have been more truthfully staged as a subtitled work, using Germans in the lead roles, speaking their native language.

The casting of Americans such as McAdams, Hoffman and Willem Dafoe as Germans speaking in accented English is likely an attempt at broadening this work's all-important American and international commercial appeal.

It would have been better to ditch the accents, in the style of World War II thriller Valkyrie (2008), but that was probably made impossible by the inclusion of German actors in the supporting parts.

Dialogue is terse and appropriately multi-layered, especially in the exchanges between Bachmann and American liaison Sullivan (Wright).

Director Anton Corbijn has grown in confidence since the cool, stylish hitman thriller The American (2010). He is not afraid of silences or long, wide shots, but he now supplements them with more kinetic camera moves.

Corbijn often lets the frame rest on Hoffman's pale, whiskered visage, as the actor expertly slips into the skin of a man who loves the joy of the chase as much as he hates the cog in the machine he has become.

johnlui@sph.com.sg

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