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Posts Tagged ‘Anton Corbijn’

As I may have commented, summer is turning into Autumn, and as it does so the pure blockbusters are being replaced by more measured, serious films: perhaps not quite awards-bait of the first order, but certainly beginning to tend in that direction. Which leads us to Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man: a classy and thoughtful drama, but also a genre movie of sorts – an espionage thriller, to be precise.

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Events unfold in Hamburg, which may perhaps tell you that this is not the most glamorous spy movie ever made. Central to proceedings is the ursine, world-weary figure of Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a somewhat-disgraced spymaster now responsible for monitoring possible Jihadi activity in the city following the September 11th attacks (which were apparently planned in Hamburg). Quite apart from the difficulties of the job, he has to contend with his opposite numbers in the German police, who have a rather different perspective, and the American intelligence establishment, who naturally take an interest in his activities.

The film opens with the unorthodox arrival in Hamburg of Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechnyan Muslim and terrorist suspect, who – it would seem – has arrived in the city intent on making contact with a somewhat shady banker (Willem Dafoe). But why? The police want Karpov taken into custody straight away, but Bachmann insists on maintaining surveillance. Through the agency of an idealistic young lawyer (Rachel McAdams), Karpov succeeds in making his supposed intentions clear – his father deposited a vast sum of money in a German bank, and now Issa wants to withdraw it and use it to make a new life for himself outside of Russia. Bachmann is forced to conclude that Karpov presents no immediate threat to European or American society – but that doesn’t mean he can’t be useful in his own way…

There is, of course, a bigger picture going on here, and that picture would most likely be of wheels within wheels (with possibly a few more wheels inside them, for good measure). The plot of A Most Wanted Man is complex and really does demand your attention, but it is very much to the credit of Corbijn’s direction and Andrew Bovell’s script that the story remains clear throughout, without being overly simplistic.

As espionage thrillers go, this one is heavily pitched towards the dramatic end of the spectrum: the setting and general tone of the thing somewhat recall Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies, but the action sequences which punctuated those films are almost entirely absent here. Instead, there is a much stronger emphasis on character and performance, as you might expect given the quality of the cast. Many glowing tributes were paid to the talent of Philip Seymour Hoffman following his death, but seeing him in a film like this one really brings home what a remarkable actor he was, as this is one of his most striking feats of chameleonism – you’re never in any doubt as to who you’re looking at, but his voice, mannerisms and body language are all utterly unrecognisable. He dominates every scene he’s in – the whole film, really.

Bachmann is not a conventional hero – he is cynical, abrasive, and quite prepared to manipulate and bully those around him to achieve his goals. I suppose you could argue this is another story about the brutality of antiheroes, but Hoffman manages to humanise him to the point where he is sympathetic. A moment of treachery to which Bachmann is subjected near the end of the film is shocking, until you realise he has employed very similar tactics himself throughout the story.

These kinds of shades of grey persist throughout. It seems like every major character is in thrall to the vicissitudes of their past, still brooding over some kind of personal wound or regret. Even McAdams, who initially seems like the film’s only idealist, is implied to have only taken up her calling out of a desire to rebel against her traditional upbringing.

This initially looks like it’s going to be a film about Islamophobia, with the agencies’ undefined fear of who Karpov may prove to be set to force them into actions as extreme as any as those they are trying to prevent – the Nietzschean theme of how you battle monsters without becoming one yourself. There is, I suppose, an element of that in the film, but I think in the end it is much more about the inevitability of history repeating, and the fact that everyone is caught in its coils. It is an impeccably-made and thoroughly engrossing drama, and if it lacks that mysterious X factor which might have made it a serious contender for Oscars and more, it is still a powerful and thoughtful film.

 

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