A Most Wanted Man

A Most Wanted Man movie poster

I have not read any John le Carre novels as of yet, but I have seen many movies based on them. Whether it’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (be it the miniseries or the film), “The Constant Gardner,” “The Tailor of Panama” or “The Russia House,” all of Carré’s stories deal with people who have seen it all and have long since been burned out by the possibility of changing the way people exist in the world. Since he was once an employee of the British intelligence agency MI6, Carré’s books generally deal with spies who are not like the ones we remember from James Bond or Jason Bourne movies. Instead, these are spies who inhabit a morally duplicitous world they have to struggle in even as it tears away at who they once were. They claim to be doing this work for the sake of peace, but after a while, you begin to wonder how much they believe this as they soon look like they are kidding themselves.

A Most Wanted Man” is the latest Carré cinematic adaptation, and it is a perfect example of the kind of spies he has become famous for writing about. This film has also taken on an added importance as it features the very last lead performance from the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman who plays Günter Bachmann, the weariest looking spy who has ever walked the face of the earth. Only Hoffman could have inhabited such a worn-out character and make him so endlessly fascinating as Günter goes through this movie looking like he barely has a pulse.

This movie starts off with a note saying the German port city of Hamburg is where Mohammed Atta and his collaborators planned the September 11th attacks. The fact Atta was able to plan the attacks without being caught beforehand was due to failures in intelligence among other things and, as a result, the intelligence operatives continue to work as hard as they can to make sure this never happens again. The story takes place over a decade after 9/11, and it doesn’t take too long to see how these characters still treat the horrific day as if it just happened yesterday.

Günter is the leader of an anti-terrorism team which seeks to develop sources within the Islamic community in the hopes of getting leads on high-profile subjects. His team eventually finds one in Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a half-Chechen, half-Russian who has just immigrated to Hamburg illegally after suffering torture and imprisonment which has made him look like a walking corpse. At the same time, he is also on the verge of claiming an inheritance worth millions in Euros. The question is, will any of this inheritance go towards funding terrorist groups, or will Issa make sure it goes to who needs it the most?

“A Most Wanted Man” was directed by Anton Corbijn, a Dutch filmmaker who previously directed George Clooney in another spy movie called “The American,” and he is not out to give us the typical spy thriller designed to give the audience a potent adrenaline rush. The spies here are all about playing mind games with their prey as well as with those from another country than they are in getting into gun fights and car chases. This might frustrate some viewers who prefer their spy movies to exhilarate like few other cinematic experiences can, but Corbijn is intent on taking his time with this story at a pace which befits the le Carre novel it is based on. For those of you who have seen “The American,” this should not come as a surprise.

Seriously, not enough can be said about Hoffman’s performance. You never really catch him acting here. Hoffman simply becomes Günter right before our eyes, and he makes you feel his character’s weariness for all it’s worth. Watching Hoffman is heartbreaking because he really does give us a master class in acting here, and this sadly is one of the last times we will ever get to see him do that.

Among the highlights of “A Most Wanted Man” are the scenes Hoffman has with Robin Wright who plays CIA agent Martha Sullivan. Currently on a critical high from her work on the Netflix series “House of Cards,” Wright matches Hoffman scene for scene as these two play a mental game of chess, trying to guess what the other is thinking without revealing too much of themselves in the process. Looking into the eyes of both these actors, you can tell how much fun they have sparring with one another. When they tell one another they are trying to make the world a safer place, you can smell the deceitful sarcasm dripping from their mouths as their jobs now force them to become competitors over nabbing the next big terrorist suspect.

Granted, Hoffman’s German accent is a little off-putting at first, but we do get used to it eventually just as we do with the one Rachel McAdams pulls off. McAdams portrays Annabel Richter, a deeply passionate human rights attorney who does her best to protect Issa from unnecessary prosecution. However, when Annabel is put in a position where she is forced to betray those closest to her, McAdams makes you feel her character’s agony without even having to use words to express it. As for Willem Dafoe who plays bank manager Tommy Brue, you can never really go wrong with him in anything he’s in.

“A Most Wanted Man” is, at times, a little hard to follow to where you may come out of it thinking the plot was a little too convoluted for its own good, but most viewers should be able to get the gist of the story. The pace is also a little too slow at times although things do pick up before the end. Whatever the case, it is definitely worth seeing for the performances, especially the ones given by Hoffman and Wright. It will be hard to escape the bittersweet feeling this movie leaves you with as this is one of Hoffman’s last, and I came out of it wondering if we would ever see an actor like him ever again; one who doesn’t look like a movie star but whose talents have more than earned him the right to be one.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

About Time

About Time movie poster

Those who know me best know I typically cannot tolerate romance movies. Sure, there are exceptions like “When Harry Met Sally” and “(500) Days of Summer,” but I usually find most of them to be unforgivably manipulative, inherently cheesy and full of cringe inducing dialogue. As a genre, I typically avoid it whenever possible, so my enthusiasm for “About Time” was not at an all-time high. But then I noticed a familiar name on the movie’s poster, Richard Curtis. This is the same man who wrote the screenplay for “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” one of the few romance movies which actually had me on the edge of my seat, and he also wrote and directed “Love Actually” which has become my dad’s favorite film to watch on Christmas Eve. As a result, my excitement for this movie suddenly went up to an unexpected height.

“About Time,” on the surface looks, like the kind of romantic comedy where a man and woman get together, fall in love and then break up only to become a couple again by the movie’s end. But the fact is its trailer doesn’t do the movie any justice. The story ends up becoming more than the usual romance, and it ended up go in directions I didn’t expect it to. Curtis is obviously aware of the trappings inherent in this genre, and he succeeds in avoiding them and gives yet another film which is genuinely moving and full of characters who are relatable and refreshingly down to earth.

The main character of this romantic tale is Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson), a 21-year-old desperate to have a girlfriend in this lifetime. His attempts at getting a kiss on New Year’s Eve don’t work out as planned, and it only adds to his self-deprecating attitude which he has clearly spent years perfecting. He can’t even capture the heart of his sister’s best friend Charlotte (Margot Robbie) who is quite the looker.

Before he heads off to London to become a lawyer, Tim’s dad (played by Bill Nighy) lets his son in on a little secret: the men in his family have the power to time travel. All Tim has to do is go inside a closet, clench his fists tightly and think about a place he wants to go to, and suddenly he’s there. He immediately tests this time travel power out and goes back to New Year’s Eve to get the kiss he missed out on, and from there he uses it to benefit himself and those closest to him whenever possible.

Now on the surface this seems like a silly plot for a movie, and the Bill Murray comedy “Groundhog Day” quickly came to mind as I watched “About Time,” but Curtis has not given us the typical time travel movie here. In fact, the time travel aspect gets pushed more and more into the background as Curtis aims to focus on not one but two love stories.

Tim ends up meeting an American woman at a blind dating restaurant where everyone is served food in the dark, and through their conversations they form a connection which becomes unbreakable. Once he gets outside and back into the light, he discovers the person he spoke with is the beautiful but insecure Mary (Rachel McAdams), and their moment on that quiet London street had me rooting for them to make this relationship work.

The other love story in “About Time” is between Tim and his dad, and I found it to be the most moving part of this movie. At first it looks like they have the usual father-son relationship where the father gives his son life advice and the son takes it with a grain of salt, but their relationship feels a lot more real than those I have seen in recent movies. Once Tim learns his dad is headed for a certain fate he can’t escape from, their relationship becomes even deeper and you dread the moment these two people will have their last ever conversation.

Are there some logistic problems with the time travel aspect of this movie? Probably, but I didn’t care. It serves as an interesting plot device as Tim accidentally erases his initial encounter with Mary after helping a friend, and he ends up having to make her fall in love with him all over again. It’s also amusing to watch Tim try to improve on certain moments in his life with Mary like when they have sex or when he proposes marriage. Heck, we’d all love to have the power to undo the more embarrassing moments in our lives, and I got a huge kick out of Tim undoing his.

But the time travel device does serves to illuminate one of the movie’s main themes which is to not be overly concerned with the past or the future, but to instead stay in the present and take pleasure in every moment. This is what I love about Curtis’ movies, how he takes the most mundane, ordinary things and turns them into a thing of beauty. They are the things in life we take for granted and don’t always take the time to appreciate. By the movie’s end, Curtis makes us realize this, and we come out of “About Time” with an upbeat look on life we don’t always have.

The other thing I’ve come to love about Curtis is how populates his films with multi-dimensional characters we can relate to. The thing that drives me nuts about a lot of movies, especially ones from the romantic genre, is how they give us characters that are doing so much better than the rest of us, and it gets to where we just believe that all these problems with love only happen to successful white people. Curtis, however, continues to give us the most memorable characters we could ever hope to meet in our lifetime.

It also helps that Curtis has quite the cast to work with. Domhnall Gleeson, whom you might remember as Bill Weasley in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” is terrific in the way he radiates that Hugh Grant awkwardness as his character goes from being unlucky in love to being very lucky in life. As for Rachel McAdams, I’m trying to remember the last time I found her to be so radiant in a movie. McAdams does some of her best work here as Mary, and every time she smiles it just fills your heart with joy. There’s also some nice performances from Lydia Wilson as Tim’s wayward sister Kit Kat (yup, that’s her name), Lindsay Duncan as Tim’s mom, and the late Richard Griffiths has a wonderfully memorable moment as an actor who doesn’t need help memorizing his lines and will bluntly let you know this.

But the best performance in “About Time” comes from Bill Nighy who portrays Tim’s dad (we never learn his character’s real name). It’s the simplicity of his performance which really gets to you as he never overplays or underplays the character. He never tries to go for that “Oscar moment” which the Academy easily goes crazy over for all the wrong reasons. Nighy doesn’t give us an extraordinary man or a boring father. Instead, he just gives us a man and a dad who is no different from the one we’ve grown up with, and he makes it so, when we watch him, we can’t help but think of our own dad.

Seriously, “About Time” moved me to tears. The only other movie this year I’ve cried after was Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder,” but that’s mainly because he just had to use Henryk Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” which remains the saddest piece of music I have ever heard. With this film, Curtis reminds you of how the simple pleasures in life can often be the greatest, and of how you need pain in order to better appreciate happiness. There are a lot of movies out there which try and make you see this, but few filmmakers these days can make us appreciate this as much as Curtis does.

It’s a bummer to hear Curtis say “About Time” will be his last film as a director. He’s not leaving the movie business, but he is going to spend more time on the charities he works for. Still, it’s hard to think of any director, other than Mike Newell, who can better convey Curtis’ views on life as well as Curtis. Here’s hoping he changes his mind at some point in the future.

* * * * out of * * * *