Hamburg is often called Germany’s gateway to the world. The port city is famous for its culture, history and red light district; it’s also known for the Hagenbeck Zoo which was the first in the world to dispense with cages and for being the city where The Beatles honed their chops. Unfortunately, Hamburg is also known as the city that Mohamed Atta, one of the 9/11 ringleaders, used as his base of operations. This fact is the starting point of A MOST WANTED MAN, the movie adaptation of John le Carré’s 2008 novel of the same name.
Thirteen years have passed since 9/11 and Hamburg is alert to anything resembling terrorist activity. Günther Bachmann (Hoffman) is a German spy who cultivates informants within Hamburg’s Muslim community. When a Chechen refugee, Issa Karpov, enters the city illegally, Bachmann is swiftly alerted to the man’s presence. Russian intelligence describes him as a dangerous terrorist. Karpov makes contact with Tommy Brue (Dafoe) a banker who has a large sum of money in a secret account deposited by Karpov’s father. Bachmann is interested in using Karpov to “turn” a local Muslim businessman, Dr Abdullah. They believe some of Abdullah’s activities lead back to Al Qaeda. Although Bachmann sees Karpov as a minnow to use as bait for Abdullah, there are members of German and American Intelligence who need to be persuaded of this plan.
Who is doing what to whom and why is always up for grabs in this movie. If you’ve spent time in le Carré’s world of spooks and covert operations, then you’ll know the full picture won’t be revealed until the end. This is an espionage thriller minus the car chases, gun battles or fist fights. Neither Bond nor Bourne are anywhere to be seen. The story relies on surveillance, conversation, wiretapping and interrogation. It is about the ability of Bachmann and his team to second- guess the motives and reactions of others. If this sounds more enticing than watching the cast leap from a helicopter as it explodes into a massive orange fireball, then this may be the spy flick for you.
Director Anton Corbijn keeps things moving along and slightly off–kilter. His photography background is more evident in his other features CONTROL and THE AMERICAN, where he collaborated with cinematographer Martin Ruhe. This movie does not require that kind of artistic formality. In terms of story, le Carré adaptations can be tricky. I found 2011’s TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY somewhat baffling. The audience usually has an impressive number of characters to keep track of. Fortunately, Australian screenwriter Andrew Bovell (LANTANA) does a fine job making it all coherent.
Günther Bachmann is the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final leading role. His performance is as excellent as always. He fully inhabits the part of a broken down spy who smokes and drinks to excess while trying to make up for past mistakes. He is eminently watchable in every single scene.
I took a few moments to deal with the fact that I was watching actors speaking English with German accents in a movie shot in Hamburg. I know Daniel Brühl from his German movies, so to see him in this context was slightly mind-bending, however I soon got used to it. Brühl seems to be a rather well credentialed actor for the small role he is given here, so I wonder if some of his scenes were cut. Nina Hoss is very good as Bachmann’s second-in-charge, Irna Frey. Russian actor Grigoriy Dobrygin is impressive as Issa, the title character.
A MOST WANTED MAN is nearing the end of its limited Australian release. Track it down if you’re a le Carré fan and want to see a pared-back-to-the-essentials movie version of the spy novelist’s work. This is a well-made, intelligent thriller for adults. The running time is 122 minutes. I rate it a 7/10.