September 3, 2015


Heat warning in effect

Movies

Intricate espionage plot is classic le Carré

Rumpled final role a good fit for late actor Hoffman

One must always distinguish between "spy thriller" and "John le Carré spy thriller."

The former is generally fantasy. The latter is the stuff of grim reality.

Willem Dafoe, left, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Willem Dafoe, left, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Roadside  attractions  photos
The late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Roadside attractions photos The late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

So be advised: If you thought the 2011 film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was a little dull, action-wise, it's a non-stop thrill ride compared with Anton Corbijn's adaptation of le Carré's 2008 novel A Most Wanted Man.

That's not a complaint. Unless you appreciate le Carré's meticulously constructed plots and his brilliant, white-collar warrior-heroes, you may find there's nothing to see here.

Philip Seymour Hoffman was evidently a fan. In his last starring role, Hoffman plays Gunther Bachmann, a contemporary German spymaster in the George Smiley mould.

Bachmann operates out of Hamburg, deemed a terrorist hot spot in the aftermath of 9/11, when it was discovered Mohamed Atta had planned the airliner attacks as part of a Hamburg cell of al-Qaida.

On hyper-alert, Bachmann's team of spies discovers a suspicious presence in town in the person of Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen rebel recently escaped from a Turkish prison.

Karpov does indeed look sketchy, but he has apparently come to Hamburg to leave his past behind, and contend with a shameful legacy. It emerges he is the son of a very corrupt, very dead Russian general who kept a bank account in Hamburg. Issa doesn't even want the money out of the deal. He wants a home.

In that task, he finds an ally in Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a liberal lawyer, who acts as his go-between with cagey German banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe).

Interceding in all their lives is the rumpled, but persuasive Gunther, who plans to use Issa and his cash to get the goods on Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a respected Muslim fundraiser whose charitable works include money-funnelling to a terrorist organization, or so Gunther suspects.

In any case, like any good spy, Gunther is fighting the good fight to land ever more important sources of intelligence, which goes against the policy of his more reactionary bosses, and just maybe a vaguely menacing CIA agent (Robin Wright, essaying the moral ambiguity of her equally hard-to-read character on House of Cards).

Director Corbijn, who explored similar espionage turf in the George Clooney thriller The American, resists any impulse to spice up le Carré's story with gratuitous sex and/or violence. The attraction between Annabel and Issa, for example, is kept touchingly chaste.

One serious quibble is the casting of North Americans as Germans. One certainly forgives giving Hoffman the lead role, as he has one crucial quality for a le Carré hero: he looks like he was born rumpled. One is less forgiving of the presence of McAdams and especially Dafoe, who speak with notably fake German accents, while good German actors such as Nina Hoss and Daniel Brºhl are given precious little to do in the background.

Otherwise, this is an entirely admirable movie about post-9/11 espionage, even more uncivilized now than it was in George Smiley's day.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 25, 2014 D3

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