When Anton Corbijn’s latest film opened with dour visuals and Phillip Seymour Hoffman deadpanning his dialogue through a wobbly German accent, I was a little concerned. Fortunately, this concern turned out to be mostly misplaced as A Most Wanted Man proved to be a brooding, slow-paced thriller that managed to hold my attention without resorting to bombast. Chances are if you enjoyed Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, then this latest Le Carré adaptation will be right up your (grey filtered) street.
Hoffman takes on the role of Günther Bachmann, the head of a shady Hamburg-based anti-terror unit reduced to playing dirty when Issa Karpov, a former Al Qaeda member, appears from the blue and lays claim to his father’s fortune. The narrative is bounced between Bachman’s investigation and Karpov’s increasingly desperate attempts to evade his clutches (aided by Rachel McAdams’ spiky lawyer), with the jumps in perspective going on to create a multi-layered tapestry of paranoia and hushed back-room conversations.
It’s a plot that’s short on actual action, and very heavy on intense dialogue and under-the-table dealings, but Corbijn and his talented cast make the potentially dull material engaging and strangely intense. This tension stems, much akin to its stylistic predecessor Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, from an absence of thrills rather than an abundance of them. The film is on the whole so quiet that the audience is left hyper-sensitive to the most passing jolt or the slightest whiff of threat. When a set piece that essentially boils down to a character signing a piece of paper has you clutching the edges of your seat, you know that someone’s doing something right.
This kind of quiet filmmaking evidently isn’t for everyone, but A Most Wanted Man‘s watertight script makes it a good deal less trying than many of its ilk. Despite 90 percent of the film consisting of nicotine stained back-and-forths, the dialogue doesn’t have an ounce of excess on it, making the film’s two hour runtime an unexpectedly breezy prospect. The characters are well-written, the retorts clever but never too try-hard and an occasionally labyrinthine plot is handled with intelligence and coherence. In short, it’s impressively efficient cinema.
And Corbijn takes to his section of the craft with a similar sense of determined professionalism. A former photographer, his previous work -the brilliant Control and the stylish but insubstantial The American – has been notably striking. With A Most Wanted Man, he once again provides a masterclass in artful framing. The visual feel of the film is one of slightly sullied dread, with Corbijn emphasizing smoky browns and greys without over-imposing his vision. Many of his shots may seem unremarkable at first, but his utilizing of Spielberg’s “quiet lens” makes what could have easily become an orgy of brooding, over-wrought cinematography an exercise in understated brilliance.
The cast follows suit, with a set of impressive but un-showy performances. Hoffman is the closest thing we have to a protagonist, with his gruff, impenetrable Bachmann leading a well-balanced cast of characters that offer a consistently great – if unremarkable – set of ensemble performances. This is the kind of film where an actor’s lack of expression is just as important as any emotional revelation, and Hoffman delivers a real stone-waller of a performance. Once you pick up on the phrasing of his accent it’s yet another impressively subtle turn from one of the most brilliant actors of our generation. The rest of the cast pays their dues as well, with Robin Wright, Willem Dafoe and Daniel Bruhl all delivering solid turns from well within their comfort zones. The only real issue I had was the casting of Rachel McAdams, whose wavering mid-Atlantic accent distracts from a character that is otherwise the closest thing the film has to an emotional core.
And it is a pretty emotionless affair, but this is not the kind of film that thrives on outpourings and confessions. It’s a story brimming with lies, paranoia and distrust, and it’s a tone that Corbijn and his team have hit to a tee. A Most Wanted Man is constantly threatening to boil over, and a quietly oppressive dread seems to hang over its very make-up. It’s not going to be for everyone, but this is the kind of dialogue-heavy, low-key thriller that fans of John Le Carré’s work will love. It’s smart, sparing and subtly engaging cinema.
Slow-paced and brooding, A Most Wanted Man won't be to everyone's tastes, but it's a must see for Le Carré fans.