A Most Wanted Man – what would become spy novelist John Le Carre’s 21st book – took the writer back to Germany in what he called his continuing love affair with Europe’s most populous nation. In the early days of the Cold War, a time when Berlin became a city divided by a wall, Le Carre – then known as David Cornwell – found himself assigned to Bonn as a member of Britain’s foreign service. There, in the capital of what was then known as West Germany, Le Carre wrote his third and most famous novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Shortly thereafter, the clandestine writer’s identity was disclosed and he was swiftly transferred to Hamburg, where for a brief time he acted as British Consul.
Because of its largely grey exteriors and rich, diverse population, the northern port city seemed a good fit to Le Carre as the setting for A Most Wanted Man. The nature of its import-export economy makes Hamburg the ideal focal point to attract a large immigrant community. Aside for being recognized for its bustling port, the city is known as a liberal hub of university life. But Hamburg’s more recent past includes a dark underbelly that also fits a story with no small amount of intrigue. Readers and movie audiences in the United States and particularly in Germany may well remember that Hamburg was the location where conspirators engaged in much of the early plotting to take down the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
The cast of this international production includes the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as the German spy branch manager, Rachel McAdams as the human rights advocate, Willem Dafoe as the international banker and new to English-language audiences, as the Chechen asylum seeker, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Nina Hoss as the spymaster’s lieutenant, and Robin Wright as a CIA agent.
Into this melange comes the mysterious figure named Issa, the asylum seeker from Chechnya. Who is he really? And what is he about? Those questions become central to the plot of the big screen adaptation of Le Carre’s story directed by Dutch filmmaker Anton Corbijn (Control, The American).
Issa seems on the surface a man seeking a safe haven, a new beginning. But around him swirls a cloud of suspicion. And everyone he meets has a competing interest in him.
“I wanted to make something that was relevant to our lives after 9/11,” the director said during a Sundance Q & A when he was asked why he made the film. “…the way the world changed so quickly. We judge people so quickly. It’s all so black and white.
Hoffman’s character is head of a branch of Germany’s intelligence service, a man tasked with performing functions the constitution does not allow. Of what would become one of his last roles, the actor said, “It’s a film about these people who are in these circumstances and because of what’s happening in the world they are exposed in a way that’s unbelievably powerful, I think. There’s no where to hide.”
“These encounters that people have with each other are unlikely encounters,” Willem Dafoe observed. “I am a banker that runs into a young woman that works for a refugee relief agency. I am a banker that runs into secret service people. I am a banker that runs into a young Chechen guy. And those encounters bring us all to a kind of crisis. And we’re all in crisis. And it’s all centered around one event. So it’s a beautiful way to see one event from many different angles.”
Dafoe’s interpretation seems spot on, and works hand in hand with what Le Carre maintained should be viewed as essential about this film — a “delicate balance between political imperatives and human morality.”
A Most Wanted Man runs two hours and one minute and is rated R.