Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s spy thriller is perhaps one of Phillip Seymour-Hoffman’s finest performances, dominating the screen as the German spymaster Günther Bachmann. This challenging last outing for Hoffman is testament to his tremendous talent and makes us feel his loss afresh.
Like many of Hoffman’s character’s Bachmann is a cagey, intelligent and desperately lonely being. He starts the film haunted by his past failures, after he is betrayed by C.I.A agents during an operation in Beirut. As a result he fiercely protects his new post and the intelligence he gathers in the city of Hamburg. Hoffman brings humanity to a complex character and seems to appear simultaneously dishevelled and world-weary but at the same time incredibly determined. In one of the stand out scenes of the film, Hoffman dominates Rachel Mcadams character during an interrogation both physically and verbally not because his character is a totalitarian, but because Bachmann is desperate for information. Hoffman seems to embody both parts of Bachmann’s character, the insular side and the ferocity that is needed to protect a nation’s security.
At first the main threat to Hamburg’s security emerges from the waters as Issa Karpov, acted by Grigoriy Dobrygin who does a great job playing a homeless Chechen and is named as an escaped militant jihadist. Dobrygin strikes the right balance between a clear and present threat to national security alongside a more human story about a Chechen who has clearly been tortured by his own people. The mystery of his character only aids a plot like this as the audience never knows his true intentions.
Complicating the story is the liberal human rights attorney Annabel Richter (Rachel Mcadams) who assists Issa Karpov in trying to claim back money being held by Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), a banker whose father laundered money. But she soon starts safeguarding Issa and they become dependent on each other. Mcadams does well here but I couldn’t help but feel that her character was the least well-rounded, especially considering that she is pivotal to the plotline. Richter has no real motivation to be involved with nor to protect Issa. Personally I thought there needed to be more of a backstory as to why Annabel Richter would become involved with a highly dangerous Chechen jihadist.
John le Carre’s plot demands your full attention as he layers multiple strands of action and narrative. As an audience it is almost impossible to predict an ending. Corbijn does a great job of stripping down the novel and focusing mainly on Hoffman’s character. At first even Le Carre doubted anyone could fill the role of Gunter Bachmann, the novelist wrote of Hoffman in a New York Times essay claiming ‘”For the first few minutes of listening to him, I thought ‘Crikey,’”. “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.” This film does belong to Hoffman, without him it would appear distant and cold but with him it reminds us of the trust we’ve lost since 9/11 internationally. He also brings humanity to a shuffling, insular character and his performance is truly mesmerizing.
Directed by Anton Corbijn. Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Daniel Brühl, Nina Hoss, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Homayoun Ershadi. 15 cert, 122 min