Posthumous performances are an unsettling experience. Considering that well-intentioned remarks most often take some form of “what a shame to lose such a talent”, I took care to be aware of the bizarre sense of mourning rights that one can carry as an audience member. That isn’t to say I have any sort of solution to the experience of grieving an actor to whom we are unnervingly acquainted with on screen but who is essentially a stranger. That being said, it was in some form of cinematic tribute that I decided to see Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final on-screen performance in Anton Corjbin’s A Most Wanted Man, based on John le Carré’s spy novel of the same title. It is my specific intent in seeing the film, which makes my task of reviewing it and Hoffman’s performance all the more difficult and necessary to acknowledge. Overall, I found the film a worthwhile watch owing to its moments of striking cinematography and pacing that did justice to le Carré’s narrative but ultimately the film was undeniably driven by Hoffman’s engrossing performance as Gunther Bachmann.
The opening scene of the film is an apt metaphor for the rest of the film both stylistically and in narrative, where the serene lapping of water against a wall in the haze of yellow night lighting shifts suddenly to disturbed waves and ebbs. To describe the plot of A Most Wanted Man would be negligible because its ambiguity is what is interesting about its premise. It helps to be aware of le Carré’s penchant for ambiguous character morality and tensely wound plots, where le Carré doesn’t feel obliged to provide elaborate contextual information for the reader. Le Carré has built a career out of crafting spy novels that are driven by lead characters that are equally disarming and intelligent as they are troubled and aloof. In this case, Hoffman plays the role of Gunther Bachmann, a cynical and fatigued leader of a small counterterrorism unit in Hamburg, Germany, eerily to perfection. It troubles me to question the extent to which audiences will read Hoffman’s personal troubles into this character, but it would be foolish to make the connection and in doing so diminish his vast acting capabilities. As mentioned previously, Hoffman’s performance is what anchors the film, which otherwise features a strong performance, as always, by Willem Dafoe and a disappointing turn by Rachel McAdams as pretty lawyer Annabel Richter who proves that she alone cannot hold a scene when required and is best when playing the part of a romantic incumbent. Corbjin’s tight and floating camera shots of Hoffman recall the ebbing of the first scene and while on paper it sounds at risk of being dizzying and unnecessary, manages to achieve something hypnotic with Hoffman on screen. The final scenes satisfy the suspense and intensity you invest as an audience throughout the 2hours of the film, where Bachmann’s hovering internal world of frustration and emotion is finally released.
It comes as no surprise to hear that Corbjin has a long history in music, having directed the music videos of U2, Bryan Adams and Metallica and photographed musicians and bands such as Tom Waits, David Bowie and Depeche Mode before venturing into feature film with his debut Control, a film about the troubled life of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. Who knows what similarities Corbjin himself may draw between music and espionage that have seen him move into the spy genre (his film before A Most Wanted Man was The American) but his music background and photographic eye makes perfect sense to me in the restless and nocturnal aesthetic he’s opted for in A Most Wanted Man. There are several shots in the film that speak to a keen eye for framing with several well angled shots showcasing Hamburg’s brutalist architecture. There is also an observable intent to avoid the walk and talk dollies and panning establishing shots common to the spy-film genre, and instead, Corbjin plays with interior and exterior staging and sound to effectively elaborate on the sense of paranoia rife within the film.
Another visual component of the film I enjoyed was the use of yellow lighting, often taking form in a sickly, fluorescent yellow that was both a nice departure from the moody shadowing and greys, which isn’t completely absent of the film but restrained, as well as being a nod to the French association between spy literature and yellow (‘un roman jaune’ is the French term for spy novels and literally translates to ‘a yellow novel’). The yellow motif is taken to great effect by French cinematographer Benôit Delhomme who has done a great job balancing the cold and sober Hamburg in the daytime with a rich night cinematography of fluorescent interiors and ambient street settings that are crucial to the restlessness of Hoffman’s lead and to the urgency of espionage work. These shots of voyeuristic serenity punctuating scenes of action and suspense are a highlight of the film for me, which was at times hugely clumsy with editing that clips the ends of dialogue and rushes in incongruous music when what was needed was a scene to have room to establish itself properly and breathe. Suspense after all is as much about the urgency as it is the moments of respite. Herbert Grönemeyer’s composition fits the bill of what filmmakers have deemed to be the musical counterpart to ‘spy’ film, which includes a great deal of high tempo base as well as contemplative piano pieces. There was the interesting inclusion of accordion, which toward the end of the film became fitting but was frustrating to hear rudely intrude on scenes at the beginning of the film that disturbs establishing scenes of dialogue.
At best the film could be described as the intellectual cousin of the Bourne trilogy with all too few moments of great scene transitions, framing and sound editing that is largely overcome by the many noticeable moments where it doesn’t get these components quite right. These instances are quite jarring and are hard to forgive despite being mostly within the first 40minutes of the film and despite Corbjin’s clear intention to deviate from the norm of spy film conventions. The film however recovers itself in part due to Hoffman as his character and the narrative becomes more engaging, and finally ending on a great note. It is undoubtedly Hoffman’s performance that elevates the film by driving an investment in narrative that is crucial to the film as well as doing justice the camera work that could have otherwise been stale and overwrought if centered on someone who wasn’t an incredibly strong lead actor.
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