Hoffman at his finest in imaginative 'A Most Wanted Man'
It is only after the tense, terrible climax of A Most Wanted Man - a betrayal as brutal as it was inevitable - that the realization that Philip Seymour Hoffman is gone hits you.
One of the late actor's last film performances - and one of his greatest, in a career marked by immersive, inventive turns - Hoffman stars as Günther Bachmann, a rumpled, chain-smoking German who oversees a covert antiterrorist unit in modern-day Hamburg. The actor lives and breathes the man.
Bachmann is a creature - sentient, sad - born from the chilly, labyrinthine imagination of John le Carré, whose 2008 novel of the same name has been adapted with artful precision by the Dutch director Anton Corbijn. Like Richard Burton and Alec Guinness before him, Hoffman slips into the drab uniform of a world-weary le Carré spook as if the business of surveillance and subterfuge, of running informants and rattling cages, reverberated with all the meaning of the world.
And perhaps it does: To spy, to lie, to seduce, to deceive, to try to do right, to destroy - that is the current that runs under everything in le Carré's fiction, and it courses through Hoffman's veins as Bachmann in A Most Wanted Man.
On the surface, at least, the most wanted man of the title is a bearded young Chechen, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), who pops his head out of the Elbe and steals into the city, on the run. He is a suspected Islamic militant, and Bachmann needs to track who he meets, where he goes. The al-Qaeda plotters behind 9/11 worked, undetected, in Hamburg more than a decade prior to the attack, and Bachmann is determined to see that no new terrorist cell operates on his watch.
And so, using tradecraft and tough interrogations, members of his team (Daniel Brühl, Vicky Kreips) find and follow Karpov, eventually leading them to a Turkish woman and her son, and to a lawyer for a human rights group whose mission is to find safe haven for refugees. The lawyer, Annabel Richter, is played by Rachel McAdams, who acquits herself well with both her accent and her ability to navigate the streets of Hamburg by bicycle. (Remember the cyclist in le Carré's The Spy Who Came In From the Cold? It's not the safest means of transport in his books.)
A Most Wanted Man's cast - a mix of Germans speaking English, Americans speaking English with German accents, Russians, and men and women from the Middle East - is uniformly stellar. Homayoun Ershadi is perfectly unreadable as a key Muslim figure who professes peace and tolerance, but who may have other agendas. Willem Dafoe is suitably tight-lipped as the head of a private bank holding millions of euros that Karpov lays claim to. And Nina Hoss, the star of 2012's gripping East German thriller Barbara, gives an underwritten part nuance and dimension. Her Irna Frey is Bachmann's closest colleague - she anticipates his moves, shares his whiskey and moments of keen quiet. They are like lovers, only they aren't; he goes home to his apartment, with its upright piano and Coltrane LPs, and she to hers. But the intimacy of the relationship suggested by Hoss and Hoffman together functions like a heart pumping blood through the film.
As Corbijn's taut thriller fades to black, a title card appears: "In loving memory of Philip Seymour Hoffman." (In fact, the complete dedication is in memory of Hoffman and Simon Channing Williams, one of the film's producers.)
The anger, disbelief, and shock we've just witnessed on the face of Hoffman's Günther Bachmann feels like our own anger, disbelief, and shock - in so many ways.
A Most Wanted Man ***1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Anton Corbijn. With Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Nina Hoss, and Daniel Brühl. Distributed by Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions.
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute.
Parent's guide: R (profanity, violence, adult themes).
Playing at: area theaters.