A Most Wanted Man is the third feature by Dutch director Anton Corbijn (Control, The American). Prior to start shooting feature films Corbijn had already established himself as a photographer and music video director in Europe. He produced some of the most iconic music videos for the likes of Joy Division, U2, and David Sylvian. His first movie, the Joy Division bio pic Control, was very much a photographer’s work; despite the action on the screen, one could not shake the feeling that we were facing a series of perfectly composed stills. Corbijn’s black and white pictures imposed chilling stillness and deadly silence, and it fit perfectly to the main subject of the movie, Ian Curtis. Curtis is someone who is completely frozen in his audience’s memory, and Corbijn’s style was perfect for cutting this singer’s stark figure on the silver screen.
His next film, The American, was not as successful. Again, there are plentiful impressive shots and moving silence, yet, in this particular case, photographic stillness refused to work with the flow of the story, and thus, it did not come together well as a motion picture. In retrospect, The American was a transitional work for Corbijn; having seen his third movie, A Most Wanted Man, I can say that this is the first real motion picture directed by this talented Dutchman, and it is a very fine one at that.
A Most Wanted Man is a story of German Intelligence officer Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a Chechen fugitive Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin). When Karpov illegally comes to the shore of Hamburg, Günther is alerted of his presence by his staff. Russian intelligence service confirms to the Germans that he is a wanted terrorist, and Günther orders his team to follow his movement in the city. In the mean time, Günther and his team have been monitoring a noted Muslim leader, Abudullah, who is known as one of the most prominent moderate Muslim speakers. Günther has been trying to uncover Abudullah’s association with a shipping company which he suspects is a front for al-Qaida. .
This film offers everything you would expect from a fine espionage film based on a John le Carre novel: sophisticated plot lines; ambiguous characters; ubiquitous intrigues (yes, there is an intrigue between the sexes as well); and timely subjects, such as international terrorism, inter-agency conflicts, immigration, and indiscriminate mass surveillance. In addition, the line-up of actors are so great with the likes of Daniel Brühl (Goodbye Lenin!, Rush, The Fifth Estate), Martin Wuttke (Hitler from Inglorious Bastards, known for his role in the legendary theatre group, Berliner Ensemble, which was founded by Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel), and Herbert Grönemeyer (Das Boot) playing quite insignificant roles for which they are absolutely overqualified. Yet, Corbijn’s enviable list of talents in this film is not a bad thing, for the deliveries by the main cast are very impressive, and keeps us focused on the drama. Dobrygin’s portrayal of a tortured Chechen is intense and absorbing, and Nina Hoss delivers a subtle humour and human affect to the otherwise utterly impersonal world of spying as Günther’s right-hand woman. Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, and Willem Dafoe all make their part believable, and the late Hoffman is simply magnificent as Günther.
That said, this is by no means a run-of-the-mill espionage film; there is no need for shoot-outs, car chases, flashy CGI or a catchy theme song. It is comparable to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (link), another le Carre film, in terms of the quality of acting, directing, and editing. In this film, Corbijn’s photographic sensibility, that is, his keen eye to tone and light, and his appreciation of stillness, works perfectly with the plot, the characters, and the changing pace of this motion picture. Whilst the stillness of the frames disrupted the drama in The American, here it conveys the underlying mood that makes this movie so unforgettable. This film is like a slowly developing music that was composed for the climax… one explosive instance, the moment that freezes and shatters the whole world with a singular cry of rage. And Philip Seymour Hoffman was born to embody this rage on the screen. And this cry, this cry alone, set him, and this movie, apart from the rest.