Director and Writer: Anton Corbijn
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright
Based on a 2008 John le Carré novel of the same name, this Anton Corbijn (Control)-directed ‘thriller’ feels a lot longer than its two hour running time. No doubt many will disagree and there is much enjoyment to be found in the dialogue of Andrew Bovell’s (Lantana, Edge of Darkness) screenplay adaptation, however this would have been much more entertaining in its original book form or as a TV mini-series.
We are reminded at the beginning of how the 9/11 attacks of 2001 were planned in Hamburg and it is this oversight that has created a paranoid state of security. The plot is centrally concerned with the idea of surveillance and who is under it. We follow the case of Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin, How I Ended This Summer) a Chechen Muslim immigrant who has illegally made his way to Hamburg to lay claim to his dead father’s fortune. Dobrygin’s performance is a solid turn as the intense young man and when we learn more about Karpov’s painful upbringing, his delivery is incredibly affecting. Russian intelligence has been sent to Germany denoting Karpov as a highly dangerous person and likely a terrorist. It is through the actions of an espionage task force, created to gather intelligence from the local Islamic community, that the story is formed.
It is the true star of the film, Philip Seymour Hoffman who leads this task force as agent, Günther Bachmann. While the character is a tiresome, cliché figure of the world-weary agent who is starting or finishing a cigarette at almost every scene transition, Bovell’s lines and Hoffman’s performance of them is what carries this film. We don’t learn a great deal about Bachmann over the course of the movie apart from some exposition, which is annoyingly crammed into the last twenty minutes, but it is highly enjoyable to be in his company and there is no question that we share in his frustration at the gung-ho powers above him.
The film itself may drag and the general criticism of the way that America deals with terrorist threats is starting to wear very thin in the media, there is a lot to be said about gathering intelligence (Bachmann’s analogy about the task force being like a shark and how it is misunderstood by his superiors is a rare but welcome moment of levity) and fans of HBO’s The Wire will recognise many similar themes being addressed. In addition the comments on how those in authority judge threats by ethnicity and religion are actually quite refreshing and thought-provoking.
As may be becoming obvious however is that the film’s standout feature is its fantastic performances of which there are many. Hoffman reminds us of exactly how huge the vacuum that his sad, untimely death has created with a convincing German accent and the great weight that he brings to any expression or movement. Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe and Robin Wright make up the rest of the cast that will be recognisable to the average viewer and are all on top form. McAdams shines especially in an interview scene and Dafoe shares some brilliant screaming matches with Hoffman. Nina Hoss as Bachmann’s gentler colleague Irna Fey will no doubt be a favourite of viewers and Mehdi Dehbi will surely be receiving a lot of offers after his brilliant portrayal of Jamal, a conflicted informant.
Complaints about the pacing aside, the only other real gripe is that the characters are all speaking English. It’s nonsensical and reflects either an unfortunate lack of effort on behalf of the film-makers or the studios lack of faith in a foreign-language picture to make money which sadly is likely well-founded. Overall, this film is certainly worth seeing but just probably not after a long day.