A Most Wanted Man – what a weirdly plummy, English title, but this is a John le Carré adaptation, after all, even if most of the characters are Germans. Played by Americans. Doing German accents. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman is an anti-terrorist spook in Hamburg, and is as electrifying as you’d expect, though it’s odd seeing him apparently do an impersonation of Anthony Hopkins pretending to be German, while Willem Dafoe seems to be doing Peter O’Toole as another German, possibly in Night of the Generals.
Is Tarantino right to propose that films in which foreign characters speak English are outmoded? People still seem to be making them. In this case, the man responsible is Anton Corbjin, the talented music video director who made a strong debut with the Ian Curtis biopic Control and followed it with the Melvillean thriller The American. This movie aims for a similarly crisp, glassy surface, a deadpan thriller full of moral ambiguities and questionable alliances.
A Chechen/Russian fugitive arrives in Hamburg illegally and attempts to claim a vast inheritance left by his father. He could be a terrorist, or the Arab philanthropist he plans to donate the money to might be funding terrorism. Hoffman might have a plan for how to turn them both to his side, but the Americans, led by Robin Wright, might not be trustworthy (you think?).
The film’s biggest problem is one particularly affecting audiences who know le Carré’s work: the story’s outcome is never in doubt. Maybe the attempts to make it a surprise were misguided. No doubt the doom-laden setting and tragic denouement are true to the reality of these situations, but the audience would appreciate some surprises. Still, things going wrong allows Hoffman to display his extremely skilled deployment of the F-bomb one last time.
Elsewhere there are a few unfortunate sops to the dummies, which patronise the rest of us: when Dafoe, a wealthy banker, reads a name on a card, he is obliged to read it aloud, despite being alone in the room and the card being held in a giant close-up so we can read it ourselves. When Hoffman lights one of his constant cigarettes, there’s a slight hissing crackle as the tobacco catches fire, a movie cliché that has no real place here. And the early suspense scenes feature ominous music playing over shots of Muslims praying, pandering to an Islamophobic mindset the film is otherwise at pains to avoid.
Watch the trailer: