Another week, another release receiving raves; remember Life Itself from two weeks ago? Unwarranted in the opinion of Le Movie Snob. I’m not looking to be disappointed, but my standards keep me from jumping on the bandwagon.
While I believe a movie should be able to exist independent of its circumstances, it’s hard to watch A Most Wanted Man and not think of its late star, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the tragic circumstances of his death. There’s the fact that this is the last starring performance of his we will ever see. When he died, many, including myself, mourned the loss of a great artist and the work that would never be. Sadder still is the fact that in this movie he appears to be dying before our eyes. He did not leave us at the top of his game (God’s Pocket was a disaster).
Anton Corbijn proved with his 2010 début feature The American that he can make a beautiful thriller. But here, the thrill is gone. While he excels visually, his storytelling skills are muddled and unevenly paced. It takes a long time to set up the plot- it felt like an hour at least.
A mysterious Chechen Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) arrives in Hamburg with nothing but a letter from his deceased father indicating he is the heir to millions in a Hamburg bank. Karpov is a peaceful Muslim who wants to rid himself of any ties to his brutal Russian father, including his ill-gotten riches. He wants to donate his inheritance to promote his faith. He’s naïve in thinking such a donation wouldn’t ultimately support violence.
The cold, hauntingly damp Hamburg is where Mohammed Atta planned the 9/11 terror attacks and its port has continued to attract jihadists. It is the job of Günther Bachmann (Hoffman), leader of Hamburg’s police-style anti-terrorism force, to keep an eye on potential threats.
Karpov is first noticed when he arrives at the train station, suspiciously dirty, carrying no bags, and wearing a hoodie. His face is revealed when he bumps into a stranger, the bump enhanced by an incongruent Foley sound effect. We see the act from all angels, but Bachmann and his agents only see the single-angled surveillance footage. It feels discordant.
Bachmann sees Karpov as a small fish whose funds could lead him to catching bigger ones. He ostensibly convinces American agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) of the benefit of his long term strategy. Unfortunately, Karpov eludes them with help from a young lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams). A twenty-something innocent to the evils of the world; she’s rebelling against her establishment lawyer father by representing the prejudiced. She hides him in an apartment her brother owns. While Bachmann begins to pursue Richter to get to Karpov, he also recruits Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) the manager of the bank that holds Karpov’s inheritance.
Are you bored yet?
Hoffman’s Bachmann is German, but in every scene his accent inevitably devolves into an impersonation of Richard Burton. Accents are a big problem in this movie. Rachel McAdams vacillates between German and British accents until her native American takes over. Only the German and Austrian actors speak English with a convincingly German accent.
The credits list Julia Wilson-Dickson (English much?) as the movie’s “dialogue coach.” Perhaps the problem is that what was needed was an accent coach, one with a knowledge of English vocabulary.
An accent refers to the way words are pronounced according to one’s language or location of origin.
Dialogue refers to the lines of text written by the author.
A dialogue coach would have questioned the German Bachmann asking for a “ballpark figure.”
As I mentioned earlier, it’s difficult to watch Hoffman. He doesn’t look well at all. He’s overweight, looks pallid beyond the palette created by Corbijn, and as his sloppy accent indicates, he’s not at the top of his game. I was worried for the actor as his character was giving chase; the physical exertion looked like it would kill him. Even John le Carré, the author upon whose novel the movie is based, observed he was “burning himself out before your eyes.”
I’m not comfortable laying the blame for the movie’s inability to thrill on Seymour entirely; movies are a collaboration among many people.
But I wonder what kind of movie A Most Wanted Man would have been had the demons on screen belonged only to Hoffman’s character.