Sunday 21 December 2014

A Most Wanted Man (15A) - 'Hoffman gives a masterclass in how to leave an audience open-mouthed with admiration'

George Byrne

Published 05/09/2014 | 12:34

Thriller. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Nina Hoss, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Hamayoun Ershadi, Daniel Bruhl. Directed by Anton Corbijn. Cert 15A

****

The sad death of Philip Seymour Hoffman earlier this year deprived audiences worldwide of one of  contemporary cinema’s greatest actors, leaving us to wonder just what quality of work lay ahead of him.

Well, on the evidence of A Most Wanted Man, one of his final films, our loss is all the greater as he’s simply magnificent in a gripping espionage thriller.

The third feature from Anton Corbijn, the movie is based on a John Le Carre novel and is infused with the kind of grimy atmosphere which characterised Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. However, while that movie — and the classic TV series which preceded it — revolved around Cold War paranoia, this is very much set in the present day, where the threat comes not from Islamist fundamentalism.

Mind you, despite the fact that this is most clearly a post-9/11 world, Corbijn and his production designers have clearly been heavily inspired by Cold War dramas, the cold and damp of Hamburg’s backstreet bars and clubs giving proceedings a seedy, down-at-heel feel which is entirely appropriate to the material.

Hoffman plays Gunther Bachmann, the head of an off-the-books counter-terrorism unit and someone who’s clearly been in the game too long. Puffy-faced from drink and with a cigarette rarely out of his mouth, Bachmann exudes the aura of a man who clearly knows he’s approaching dinosaur status in this shiny new world but still has the essential smarts to do his job brilliantly.

The plot is a typically dense one from Le Carre. The arrival in Hamburg of a Chechen activist (Grigoriy Dobrygin) sparks a race between Bachmann’s unit and the CIA office, headed up by Robin Wright, with the German secret service (whose boss hates Bachmann) trying to find out just what’s brought him to Germany. Into this mix we also have a philanthropic Arab businessman (Hamayoun Ershadi), a wealthy banker (Willem Dafoe) and a crusading human rights lawyer, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams).

Deception and duplicity are common currency in this world, with Bachmann only too aware that no-one can really be trusted. Sure, there are times when the twists and turns may have you scratching your head for a moment but they’re easily offset by the quality of the writing and the performances.

In one great scene Hoffman informs McAdams’ character that she’s just  “a social worker for terrorists” with a venom that leaps off the screen, while in the finale he gives a masterclass in how to leave an audience open-mouthed with admiration. God, we’re going to miss him.

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