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By Tom Clift
October 14, 2014
By Tom Clift
October 14, 2014

In 2010, celebrated photographer and music video director Anton Corbijn made The American, a slow but intensely atmospheric thriller about a hit man hiding out in a rural village in Italy. His follow-up, an adaptation of John le Carre's recent spy novel A Most Wanted Man, appears at first glance to be a film in a similar vein. Unfortunately, while the deliberate pacing remains, the atmosphere is nowhere to be found. Instead, viewers are left with a cliched and frequently stodgy affair, one that proves a wholly disappointing venue for the swansong of its star.

Indeed, the spectre of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman's unexpected death hangs heavily over proceedings, although if anything it might inspire critics to look on the film more kindly. Hoffman plays Gunter Bachmann, a hardened senior intelligence agent with the German secret service. Specifically, Bachmann works for an unofficial anti-terror unit that develops informants within the Islamic community in Hamburg.

His team's latest target is a Chechen refugee named Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), who arrives covertly in the city to claim an inheritance worth tens of millions of Euros. Bachmann wants to use the fortune to help lure in bigger targets. Complicating matters, however, is the involvement of passionate human rights lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), who takes the traumatised Karpov under her protection.

The ninth of le Carre's novels to be adapted for the big screen, A Most Wanted Man depicts the grim and grungy side of global espionage. Trapped within a broken system, Bachmann and his agents spend as much time traversing interagency politics as they do on stakeouts or interrogations. The bureaucracy of spying is not without a certain dry fascination, but as the movie drags on it becomes harder to stay engaged.

Hoffman's performance is excellent, of course. Frankly, he never gave a bad one. Yet he's limited by a stock-standard character — the cynical old veteran with a nicotine addiction and a drinking problem, who bristles at authority and is haunted by the failures of his past. Similarly uninspired is McAdams' idealistic Richter, who of course by the movie's end learns the error of her altruistic ways.

A Most Wanted Man is not without moments of suspense. Corbjin certainly knows how to craft a set piece, and also deserves credit for keeping the novel's original ending. But ultimately the film pales in comparison to his previous effort, or indeed, other recent le Carre adaptations, mostly notably Tomas Alfredson's masterful Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. There's talent here, both in front of and behind the camera. But that only makes the film we ended up with that much more disappointing.


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