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Spies Like Them

Kerry Brown/Roadside Attractions

A Most Wanted Man (2014)

Anton Corbijn and John le Carré apparently got on like a house on fire producing "A Most Wanted Man," but make an odd-couple pairing. The best le Carré adaptations — assuming you buy that films can capture the author's Olympian monotony of civil-service espionage in the first place — rely on the innate thrill of a great actor in a bad suit retrieving a folder from a cabinet and returning to the desk. Mr. Corbijn likes to film the rites of tradesmen doing their thing, although for the most part seems keener on the poses they strike while doing so than the dirt under their fingernails. Between them, these two not-quite opposing instincts build a reasonable facsimile of the author's tale, and then pretty much admire each other to a standstill.

There will come a time when the appearance in a film of Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn't produce a pang of regret that he is not still around; but we're not there yet. The pang is still half-formed in this case when he opens his mouth and turns out to be playing Hamburg spymaster Gunther Bachmann with a growling, subterranean German accent, every wheeze and breathy sigh placed high up in the sound mix. Then you notice that a lot of other non-German actors are doing the accent too, Willem Dafoe and Rachel McAdams among them. The resulting conversations become a mild pain in the ears, while authentic locals such as Nina Hoss look on with some bemusement. Mr. Dafoe — as a banker rather more central to the novel than Mr. Hoffman's spy and certainly more three-dimensional — is the best thing in the film: conflicted, love-struck and evincing rich character detail every time the actor adjusts his cuffs.

Mr. Corbijn adds a snatch of Tom Waits and Gang of Four on the soundtrack here and there, but his taste for downplaying ensures that the film remains as sedate as the plot. A half-Chechen drifter (Grigoriy Dobrygin) arrives in Hamburg with a stern expression on his face and promptly puts the wind up German and American intelligence agencies, among them Robin Wright as an icy U.S. diplomat. The story's hook is that Hamburg's multinational spies are haunted and energized by pre-9/11 mistakes, but in the film they seem resigned to their own powerlessness.

Mr. Hoffman — never powerless — jolts the film awake single-handedly late on when Bachmann, a world-class mope, cracks a forlorn, sardonic smile in Ms. Wright's direction. It's an expression ripe with the woes of the world. Books have been written about what screen acting is supposed to be about; that half-second right there is what they mean.


Opens on July 25 in the United States and on Sept. 12 in Britain.

Directed by Anton Corbijn; written by Andrew Bovell, based on the novel by John le Carré; director of photography, Benoît Delhomme; edited by Claire Simpson; production design by Sebastian Krawinkel; costumes by Nicole Fischnaller; produced by Stephen Cornwell, Gail Egan, Malte Grunert, Simon Cornwell and Andrea Calderwood; released by Roadside Attractions (United States) and Entertainment One (Britain). Running time: 2 hours 1 minute. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Günther Bachmann), Rachel McAdams (Annabel Richter), Willem Dafoe (Tommy Brue), Robin Wright (Martha Sullivan), Grigoriy Dobrygin (Issa Karpov), Nina Hoss (Irna Frey), Daniel Brühl (Maximilian), Franz Hartwig (Karl) and Homayoun Ershadi (Dr. Faisal Abdullah).


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