Captain Philip – ★★★★
It’s more or less impossible to separate the sudden death of Philip Seymour Hoffman (PSH) with his presence here in Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of the John Le Carré novel A Most Wanted Man. This always happens whenever a screen great dies and in recent years has seen films like Enough Said (James Gandolfini), A Dark Knight (Heath Ledger) and even About Time (Richard Griffiths) take on a different kind of power once the deceased actor arrives on-screen. Of course some people will be able to separate the real world loss with the finite nature of an on-screen character’s existence but personally I find it quite tough, making reviewing the film a bit tough.
PSH plays Günther Bachmann, a Hamburg-based German spy who has been trying to nab a Muslim philanthropist for money laundering and siphoning funds into terrorist activities. Bachmann and his team are also starting to track Issa (Russian actor Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen prisoner who arrives in Hamburg and sets out to claim a small fortune previously held by his now-deceased father from a banker (Willem Dafoe). Also in the mix are Robin Wright as an American C.I.A. representative and Rachel McAdams as a human rights and immigration lawyer.
The plot initially takes a while to get your head around but really there may be very little new here for anyone who has watched a spy thriller or read a Le Carré novel before. That’s not meant to be taken as a slight, as I reckon films like this tend to connect with audiences best when they just follow the bloody rules applying the requisite number of double-crosses, twists and turns. We’ve seen most of this before, just substitute “Cold War” for “Post 9/11 tensions” wherever appropriate.
As a performance to showcase his talents and act as a summation of his career, A Most Wanted Man serves Philip Seymour Hoffman well. He’s called upon to play around with a German accent and opts for some nice baritone grunts too. He’s a typical foreign bureau agent who smokes too much, eats too much, drinks too much and thinks about his targets way too much. If he has any time for friends or family, we’re none the wiser. He’s a surly, broken soul but somehow manages to be kind of cuddly. Seriously. He’s a worthy addition to the group of Le Carré leading men (dare I say anti-heroes) like James Mason, Gary Oldman and Richard Burton.
Films based in foreign countries often bemuse audiences with their language choices. These are American actors playing German characters in Germany speaking English with German accents. Should they be speaking German? Probably. Would that mean we wouldn’t have Hollywood stars which bring in studio finances and bigger audiences? Yes. And so this is our reality – we’re stuck with the rather amusing presence of a Hollywood golden girl like Rachel McAdams appearing on-screen cycling around Hamburg with a wobbly bicycle and an even wobblier pseudo-German diction. At least Robin Wright stuck with her own accent and only opted to overdo it on the blusher.
Corbijn’s direction works well, with PSH’s face being his favourite thing to linger on, with it being full of the thing the director is craving – tension, tension, tension. This slow approach to mood-building impacts on the film’s overall pacing a little, with the second act in particular dragging a little.
A Most Wanted Man won’t have the cross-over appeal that you may have expected when you saw the names involved but it is a really solid spy thriller which fans of the genre will love, though it won’t be nudging The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Lives of Others, The Bourne Identity and The Day of the Jackal off many people’s favourites lists. Truth be told if it weren’t for that notable central performance, then it may even disappear from your memory before too long – but because of it, we’ve got a film to savour.
Released across Ireland on September 12th 2014