Under the spell of a masterly spy

DEVOTION AND DERISION: Philip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of an obsessed but cynical secret agent is sublime, in his last feature role before his death.


    Aug 14, 2014

    Under the spell of a masterly spy


    Thriller/122 minutes/Opens today

    Rating: 4.5/5

    The story:

    Hamburg, Germany's second-largest city, is where the Sept 11 attacks were planned and remains a hive of suspected terrorist activity, watched over keenly by domestic and foreign intelligence agencies. The arrival of Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen Muslim terror suspect, in the city has German intelligence officer Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his team going into overdrive, especially after Karpov contacts human rights lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams). Looking over their shoulders are their more powerful American colleagues, represented by operative Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright). Based on the 2008 John le Carre novel.

    GUNTHER Bachmann is a world-weary mess, a cynic who has let his job consume his life. He is as much a skilled bureaucrat as he is a spy.

    Bachmann is played by the sublime Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last feature role before his death. He is the crumpled, middle-European cousin of George Smiley (John le Carre's celebrated fictional British spy).

    Unlike Smiley, who applied his Oxbridge mind and gentleman's code of conduct in the game of spy versus spy, Bachmann lives in a world of extraordinary renditions, immigrant populations into which enemies can melt and a superpower ally ready to burn him and his team for the sake of one capture.

    2011's le Carre adaptation, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, delved into the paranoia at Britain's MI6 branch. This work, however, is less psychological and more procedural, as well as being the most astute, authentic-looking analysis of spycraft as it is practised today.

    This film could have been staged more truthfully as a subtitled work, using Germans in the lead roles, speaking their native language.

    The casting of Americans - such as Rachel McAdams, Hoffman and Willem Dafoe - as Germans speaking in accented English is likely an attempt at broadening this work's all-important American and international commercial appeal. It would have been better to ditch the accents, in the style of World War II thriller Valkyrie (2008).

    Director Anton Corbijn has grown in confidence since the cool, stylish hitman thriller The American (2010). He is not afraid of silences or long, wide shots, but he now supplements them with more kinetic camera moves.

    Corbijn often lets the frame rest on Hoffman's pale, whiskered visage, as the actor slips expertly into the skin of a man who loves the joy of the chase as much as he hates the cog in the machine he has become.