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A Most Wanted Man - 'an extraordinary performance, an intense and all-enveloping portrayal of a man'

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Philip Seymour in A Most Wanted Man

Philip Seymour in A Most Wanted Man

Philip Seymour in A Most Wanted Man

Paul Whitington reviews this week's big movie release, which features the late Philip Seymour Hoffman's last leading on-screen role...

A Most Wanted Man

15A, 132mins

The release of Anton Corbijn's espionage thriller in these parts will inevitably be overshadowed by the fact that it stars the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

This is not his very last film: Hoffman will make posthumous appearances in Hunger Games 3 & 4. But A Most Wanted Man, sad to say, represents his last substantial screen performance, and at least he's gone out on a high note.

Hoffman always specialised in playing marginalised loners and losers, and Gunther Bachmann fits pretty neatly into that category. Bachmann is a German espionage agent based in Hamburg, the city that must forever live with the shame of being the place from which the 9/11 attacks were planned.

Gunther is haunted by that failure, and so determined to prevent it happening again that he works day and night to infiltrate and destroy budding Muslim terror cells.

He thinks he's stumbled on a big one when he discovers that an Eastern European refugee called Issa Karpov has sneaked into the city. Karpov is a half-Russian, half-Chechen Muslim who's heir to a fortune left him by his vicious and shady father.

He finds shelter in the home of Chechen friends, and is befriended by a kindly but naïve human rights lawyer called Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), who agrees to help him gain asylum.

Bachmann, meanwhile, is sure he's up to no good, but instead of bringing him in waits to see what happens when he draws the money down.

He even bullies a banker (Willem Dafoe) into making sure the transaction happens.

Gunther hopes that Karpov will lead him to much bigger fish with Al-Qaeda affiliations, but he is not the only spook sniffing around Karpov.

A rival German security agency wants to push Bachmann aside and claim Karpov for themselves with local CIA chief Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) playing a long game of her own.

This kind of dense and tortuous plotting is typical of John Le Carré, on whose novel the film is based. And while A Most Wanted Man is notionally set in the present, its mood and tone is very Cold War. Anton Corbijn's film knowingly evokes great 60s thrillers like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and while it isn't quite the equal of that paranoid masterpiece, it does grip you in a quiet sort of way.

Corbijn, a celebrated stills photographer, uses low lighting and muted colours to create an almost monochrome feel, and the characters (especially Bachmann) tend to talk in mumbles that make you lean forward in your seat to try and hear.

They live in a shady, ambiguous, joyless world where there's little room for domesticity, or romance.

One of Bachmann's colleagues, the efficient and beautiful Erna (Nina Hoss) clearly has feelings for Gunther, which he acknowledges with wry, sad smiles but doesn't seem to have the energy to do anything about.

In some of the film's best scenes, Bachmann engages in cagey intellectual jousts with his icy American colleague, Martha Wright, played with great charisma by Robin Wright. But she's about the only actor who manages to hold her own in the ring with Hoffman, and in fairness some of the ancillary parts are sketchy and underwritten.

A Most Wanted Man is almost too carefully put together, and seems constricted at times by a tightness that doesn't allow the film to breathe. But overall it works well as a crawling paranoid thriller.

Hoffman's Bachmann is an extraordinarily rounded and grounded creation, the counter-espionage equivalent of a jaded prizefighter.

When not fiercely pursuing fundamentalist zealots, Gunther repairs to dodgy bars to lick his wounds, smoking and drinking and indulging in bar brawls.

He butts his head forward like a bull, breathes heavily through his nose and speaks with a strange German accent that's so unique it helps convince you he's authentic.

It's an extraordinary performance, an intense and all-enveloping portrayal of a man whose dedication to his work has cost him everything. It seems appropriate.

Irish Independent