Hoffman film is not "Le Carré light."
“A Most Wanted Man,” Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last completed film before his untimely death earlier this year, is a testament to the actor and a case study in how a very good book can be turned into a very good film, even though casting and direction shift the emphasis.
John Le Carré’s 2008 book of the same title is not his best (though reviewers and blurbers tend to greet each new book by the venerable 82-year-old author with hype about it being his best book in years or his best book ever). But it is a very good story, updating the author’s gray, bureaucratic view of espionage for the post-Cold War, post-9/11 environment.
In the book, the titular refugee, Issa Karpov, is a more central character than he is allowed to be in the movie. Also, Tommy Brue, the banker who is holding the ill-gotten gains of Karpov’s military-mafia father in his family’s bank, is a main character.
Both are relegated to the sidelines in the movie, dominated by Hoffman, who inhabits the character of Günther Bachmann, the German intelligence agent on Karpov’s trail; he fills the screen with his desperate idealism.
It was Le Carré’s second attempt, after the less successful Single & Single, to make a banker a central character in the new world of espionage. Willem Dafoe does his usual accomplished work in a supporting role as the banker Brue here, but the screenwriter and director keep the focus on Hoffman’s character.
The movie may in a sense be more faithful to Le Carré’s vision of spying as a profession fraught with bureaucratic betrayal masked as ideology. The film narrative neatly captures Bachmann’s cynicism and frustration, but also the shred of idealism that drives him. Director Anton Corbijn was smart to simply give Hoffman his head and let him take over the film.
Rachel McAdams brings her own star power to the film, but she may be, through no fault of her own, the weakest link. As the pro-bono lawyer who takes Karpov under her wing and mediates the contact to Brue, McAdams’ Annabel Richter seems a bit too American to be convincing as a German do-gooder, despite her best efforts to speak with a German accent. Diane Kruger, who is German, might have been a better choice. (The film manages, just barely, to not let a group of English-speaking actors with accents distract from the drama.)
Next to Hoffman’s performance, though, the main achievement of the film is its design and cinematography, again so in tune with the gray tones Le Carré uses in all his books. I lived in Hamburg for two-some years. The film downplays its beauty, glimpsed only briefly in sets like the luxurious Hotel Atlantic, and finds the gritty underbelly of cheap bars and graffiti present in every German city. Le Carré lived in Hamburg during his time as a British agent and knows its quirks firsthand.
Without spoiling the film or the book, let us just say that the ultimate futility which characterizes most of Le Carré’s work is not absent from this one. I’m tempted to say that the film actually brings it across more powerfully than the book, thanks to Hoffman’s talent.
Inevitably, some of Le Carré’s subtlety is lost in the film — such as the depiction of the Turkish boxer who first gives shelter to Karpov, or Brue’s obsession with Richter. The British intelligence agents in the book disappear altogether in favor of a bigger role for the CIA.
Should you see the movie or read the book? The answer is easy — do both. The literary quality of the book is enhanced by the film and vice versa, making a whole greater than the sum of its parts.