Review by Jane Freebury

It’s a tough ask, separating our response to the Philip Seymour Hoffman character in A Most Wanted Man from the knowledge that this classy political thriller is this great actor’s final curtain call in a lead role. As intelligence operative Günter Bachmann, Seymour Hoffman is as expected, giving his character the authenticity he has bestowed on everyone he has brought to life on screen, finding the humanity in every character he plays.

Located in the great port city of Hamburg that spawned the Islamist cell responsible for 9/11, Bachmann and his team have the job of making sure that nothing like that catastrophic intelligence failure ever occurs again. Theirs is a shadowy, extra-judicial role, not exactly sanctioned in law but nonetheless required by the state.

An Arabic-speaker, Bachmann keeps tabs on the Moslem community, pursuing a softly-softly, empathetic approach that is entirely at odds with the other organisations engaged in counter-terrorism that he works alongside. A tribute to Bachmann’s skill is the quality of his informants, even the closest of close family of some of the very big fish he is netting.

A new person of interest has recently arrived in town. A young Chechen Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) without ID who might be an escaped jihadist. He mingles among the homeless and eventually makes contact with members of the Muslim community who he hopes will help him locate a bank with a secret account created by the Russian who was his father. A beautiful human rights lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) makes contact, and she too becomes a player in the final sting.

It’s no surprise that the grey world of spooks and counter-terrorism bureaucracy looks great here. The Dutch director Anton Corbijn, a professional photographer and video director has good-looking films such as Control and An American to his name. The script from Andrew Bovell (Lantana) is excellent too. The only problem for me was how important characters Karpov and Richter are insufficiently fleshed out, making Bachmann the sole person of interest. This is both the film’s greatest asset, and paradoxically, its minor weakness.

Seymour Hoffman is peerless, lifting the character of dishevelled investigator without a life who exists on cigarettes and junk food well beyond cliche. For a long time, this brilliant actor outshone his many small roles in films as disparate as Almost Famous, Happiness and Boogie Nights, until he became a charismatic leading man.

The environs of Hamburg, with sex shops, urban renewal and ethnic mix are thrown in, and the city is a living force. Other films based on John le Carré novels have clung to the dour and chilly aesthetic so characteristic of British political thrillers, but Corbijn and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme bring Hamburg to life in all its contradictions, its seediness and vitality. It’s a fine finale for Hoffman.

In a capsule: A good-looking, subtle and compelling political thriller with Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the greats, as a burnt out spook. A brilliant last lead role.

4 stars