The last we see of Philip Seymour Hoffman in “A Most Wanted Man,” he leaves his car and walks out of the frame. As it tragically turned out, he was exiting his acting career as well, and this taut, involving thriller, the late actor’s final starring role, is a fitting film for him to leave on, not only because it is so expertly done but because his role was so challenging.
Even for as brilliant a chameleon as Hoffman, a hefty man who won an Oscar for convincing us he was elfin Truman Capote, making us believe he was Günther Bachmann, a German intelligence officer, had to be one of the most demanding roles in a lifetime full of them. Even John le Carré, whose novel is the film’s source material, wasn’t sure he was up to it.
“For the first few minutes of listening to him, I thought ‘Crikey,’” the novelist wrote in a New York Times essay. “Then, gradually, he did what only the greatest actors can do. He made his voice the only authentic one, the lonely one, the odd one out, the one you depended on amid all the others.”
Not only is Hoffman at the top of his form here, the rest of the cast, including Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, German stars Nina Hoss and Daniel Brühl and Russian Grigoriy Dobrygin, have committed themselves fully as well.
Also well-matched to the film are director Anton Corbijn, whose habitual coolness (“Control,” “The American”) contrasts well with Hoffman’s innate humanity, cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, who transfers his superb eye for atmosphere (“The Scent of Green Papaya”) to bleak Hamburg, and especially Australian screenwriter Andrew Bovell, who uses the gift for intricate emotional storytelling he displayed in “Lantana” to inform Le Carré's twisty tale.
All of them, most especially Hoffman, must have felt blessed to be able to concentrate their gifts on a story by Le Carré, whose novels have been reliable sources of compelling cinema from 1965’s “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” through 2011’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”
It’s not just that Le Carré's complex plotting involves multiple strands of action that gradually interweave before unraveling to tumultuous effect, it’s that the writer is at home in a world of ambivalent morality where things should never be viewed as black and white. Not for nothing does “Most Wanted Man” start with a shot of Hamburg’s River Elbe: Its turbulent, murky waters testify to the kind of universe we are about to enter.
Emerging from those waters like a furtive sea creature is Issa Karpov (Dobrygin), a bearded, bedraggled stateless Chechen whom Interpol classifies as an escaped militant jihadist. Issa finds refuge with a Turkish family, who out of kindness connect him to a German attorney with illegal immigration experience.
That would be the young, beautiful, idealistic Annabel Richter (a completely convincing McAdams), who works for a human rights organization called Sanctuary North. Karpov has but one request for her: He would like to make contact with Thomas Brue (Dafoe), the head of a shadowy private bank who took over from his father.
Also arriving in Hamburg the same day is a much higher status individual: Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Iranian actor Homayoun Ershadi, who starred in “The Kite Runner”), a fundraiser for moderate Islam, one of the good guys who makes speeches urging tolerance and condemning the use of terror.
What unites these individuals is that, for reasons that come into focus as “A Most Wanted Man” unfolds, Bachmann is keeping his eye on both of them. Rumpled, harried, a connoisseur of flophouses and dive bars, Bachmann is the head of “an anti-terrorism unit not many people know about and even less like,” a unit that exists because “German intelligence needs a job to be done German law won’t let it do.”
Hoffman’s ability to seem ordinary (Le Carré has written that he was “the only American actor I knew who could play my character George Smiley”) is a great advantage as he disappears deeply inside Bachmann. He manages to be simultaneously disheveled and determined, phlegmatic and emotional, a harsh interrogator and a warm paternal figure in a performance that feels completely natural, even off the cuff.
Because their work is to cultivate sources within Hamburg’s Islamic community, Bachmann and his unit, including his second in command Irna Frey (the exceptional German actress and star of “Barbara,” Hoss) have a philosophy of “we take our time, we watch, we wait.”
That brings them into conflict with people who have a less nuanced view of reality. In Le Carré's universe, as in Graham Greene’s before him, those people inevitably include Americans, personified in this case by polished CIA agent Martha Sullivan (an expert Wright).
A man with a past whose miscalculations have cost him, Bachmann knows that he lives in a world where betrayal is inevitable: It’s not a question of if it will happen but when. Yet under everything this pessimistic operative is also an idealist, someone who gets personally involved. “We should take care, all of us,” he warns his team, but how much vigilance is enough? See this crackerjack thriller, at once brooding, claustrophobic and unbearably tense, and find out.
‘A Most Wanted Man’
MPAA rating: R, for language
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute
Playing: In limited release