John le Carré’s 2008 novel “A Most Wanted Man” is full of righteous anger. As morally ambiguous as his classic Cold War novels (“The Spy Who Came In From the Cold,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), “A Most Wanted Man” is about that thin grey line that separates idealists from pragmatists, from those who look at the big picture and those who want immediate results regardless of the consequences. It is about Western intelligence agencies stepping on each other’s toes in the post 9/11 era and of the innocent people caught in this tug of war. It is a gripping tale, one that traps you in its intricate web and leaves you desolate by the time its inevitable end arrives.
Andrew Bovell’s and director Anton Corbijn’s big screen adaptation of this powerful novel, however, is a cold and at times lackluster affair, too methodical in its depiction of intelligence procedures and the bureaucrats in charge of them for its own good. It lacks bite, anger, passion. It is well photographed and has a strong supporting cast. But by making German intelligence agent Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) the center of the story at the expense of three key characters who shared the limelight in the novel, Bovell and Corbijn have stripped away the film’s emotional core and even diluted its political edge.
Those other three characters are: suspected Chechen terrorist Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) who is smuggled into Hamburg, city where the 9/11 attack was concocted by Mohammed Atta; Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), an idealist human rights lawyer who agrees to help Issa seek political asylum; and banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), custodian of the illegal riches of many Russian mobsters and dishonest businessmen, including a considerable amount of money that once belonged to Issa’s father (a Russian general who raped his mother) and that Issa wants to get rid of.
Issa’s arrival hasn’t gone unnoticed by Gunther and his agents but he is not their only target; Gunther suspects that well-respected Muslim academic and philantropist Dr. Faisal Abdullah may be channeling a small percentage of the donations he receives to Al-Qaida through a shipping company. Issa gives Gunther the perfect opportunity to trap and recruit Faisal. He believes in the importance of developing assets in Hamburg’s Muslim community that could eventually lead them to bigger fish. The Americans think otherwise; in need of some good p.r., they’d much rather send both to Guantanamo and throw away the key. Soon, Issa, Annabel and Brue become pawns in a chess game, used and manipulated by Gunther while deliberately ignoring the forces conspiring against him.
If the above description sounds like an exciting, thrilling story, it is…in the novel. By stripping down Annabel’s Brue’s and even Issa’s role in the narrative, Corbijn and Bovell have stripped the plot of its key emotional and moral core. We can never engage with them, understand their motivations, even question them. Annabel suffers the most in this adaptation: whereas in the book she is a good-hearted yet conflicted idealist, in the film she is flat and poorly defined. McAdams bravely hints at that complexity but is let down by the direction and the script. Dafoe plays a far meatier role with far more nuance but even his Brue is treated as a soiled handkerchief by the film.
Hoffman, in his last completed role before his untimely death early this year, subtly underplays his role: we can feel his weariness, from the way he slurps his coffee to how he wears his rumpled clothes and trenchcoat Columbo-style, his voice dropping several octaves. And yet, as much as I appreciated and understood his approach, his performance seemed to lack his magnificent edge. It almost feels like both character and actor are fading away, aware that the end is coming.
Le Carré’s novels are not that easy to adapt to the big screen: they are nuanced, character- and plot-driven affairs. The best film adaptations of his books (“The Russia House,” “The Constant Gardener,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) capture not only their essence and spirit but also the snap, crackle and pop of his prose. Others (like “The Little Drummer Girl”) fail spectacularly. “A Most Wanted Man” is not a complete failure but it never quite manages to convey what made this particular novel tick: and a point of view.