Great actors don’t just play a role, they become the role, vanishing beneath the skin of a character so every word and gesture appears organic.
Philip Seymour Hoffman was one such rare talent.
On stage and screen, his emotional range and versatility were breathtaking, including a bravura embodiment of Truman Capote that won him the triple whammy of BAFTA, Golden Globe and Academy Award.
He was heartbreaking as a boom-mike operator in Boogie Nights, whose crush on a porn star ends in humiliating rejection, hilarious as a maverick CIA agent in Charlie Wilson’s War and monstrous as a charismatic cult leader in The Master.
Each physically and emotionally demanding role fitted him like a glove.
A Most Wanted Man is distinguished by Hoffman’s final performance in a leading role and it’s a typically understated yet riveting portrayal of a German intelligence agent, who lives on his nerves and occasional swigs of whisky or puffs of a cigarette. Based on the 2008 novel of the same name by John Le Carre, Anton Corbijn’s slow-burning espionage thriller steadily cranks up the tension, building to a nerve-jangling finale that has us holding our breath.
Chechen refugee Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) enters Hamburg illegally and seeks refuge with a kind Turkish woman (Derya Alabora) and her son (Tamer Yigit).
They put Issa in touch with immigration lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) and Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), who is head of the private bank used by Issa’s sadistic father to store his ill-gotten coffers.
German intelligence operative Gunther Bachmann (Hoffman) and his team comprising right-hand woman Irna Frey (Nina Hoss) and juniors Maximillian (Daniel Bruhl) and Niki (Vicky Kreps) identify Issa as an escaped militant jihadist.
They choose not to arrest him but use Issa as bait to snag Muslim academic and philanthropist Dr Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), who is suspected of channelling funds to terrorist Islamic organisations.
Gunther and his team exert pressure on Richter and Brue to coerce Issa into donating his father’s money to Abdullah.
However, the plan doesn’t unfold smoothly and Gunther’s operation faces intense scrutiny from high-ranking CIA operative Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), whose view of humanity is summed up when she observes, “Every good man has a little bit of bad, doesn’t he?”
Like the 2011 film adaptation of Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, A Most Wanted Man delights in the minutiae of the spy game. Expertly choreographed scenes of surveillance are punctuated by verbal fireworks and threats of violence.
Corbijn refuses to be rushed – even when he is orchestrating a chase by train and car, which is as close as the film comes to a conventional action sequence.
Hoffman’s nuanced, world-weary performance is complemented by a uniformly excellent international cast.
It’s a splendid swansong.