Adapting any novel to the screen is a supreme challenge for the writers.
Adapting any novel to the screen is a supreme challenge for the writers. It's an almost impossible chasm that must be spanned regarding how to compress a work of hundreds of pages, rife with characters, dialogue and exposition into a two-hour narrative, and still capture and sustain a narrative arc.
Regarding the works of John le Carré, I would argue that it is all but impossible. His books require the freedom to stop and turn back a page, perhaps several, and in rereading try to resolve a paragraph that seems obscure or so complex that it requires a refitting of the pieces that may seem a bit incomprehensible. To use another metaphor, it's the equivalent of walking through a labyrinth of tall hedges and having to backtrack and start again.
"A Most Wanted Man," the just-released adaptation based on le Carré's 2008 novel, is no exception. The plot is as dry and brittle as late-fall leaves, subtly convoluted, yet also quite simple when pared down, though layered with multiple characters, many working at cross- purposes.
The setting is Hamburg, Germany, during the post-9/11 hyper-vigilance that seeped into every corner of the international intelligence community. A young man, Issa Karpov — half-Chechen, half-Russian — enters Germany illegally and makes his way to contacts in the Muslim community. Who he is and what he's up to are unclear — Are his reasons for being in Hamburg benign; or are they those of a zealot, an Islamic jihadist intent on doing great harm?
Compounding the mystery is the fact that Karpov has a ghost-like presence, his silence almost total. Even when a local attorney, Annabel (Rachel MacAdams) meets him, his motivations remain elusive. But then there is a sense that all of the characters are enigmas, mere shadows, their words and motivations always suspect.
At the center of the hunt for Karpov, one that becomes ever more urgent, is Gunter Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a driven man in charge of a German anti-terrorist unit. His intent, even when his unit finds Karpov, is to let the Chechen/Russian remain free in order to find out who he will contact and why. Is Karpov far more lethal than he initially appears?
As well, other agencies are insisting that he must be apprehended immediately lest a plan be set in motion that cannot be controlled. The shadows of the Twin Towers are ever present.
But "A Most Wanted Man" is more than a spy film. It's a character study. A close and penetrating examination of one man who has given his life to his work, his commitment unwavering, a man unencumbered with family or distractions (other than alcohol and cigarettes), his focus singular. He believes uncompromisingly in his mission and its inherent righteousness. And he assumes that those he works with, in his unit as well as men and women in other adjunct agencies, share the purity of his most-secular faith.
Hoffman, in what is his last major role, finished just before his death, is brilliant, as always. But know that his character projects a consistent and tenacious restraint, a calm that never wavers until that moment when he fully comprehends that though his actions, while duplicitous to the enemy, are free of any mendacity where his colleagues are concerned, and he seems incapable of imagining that his trade craft could ever turn back on him.
He works in a world where he is a priest and is unaware that apostates are present in those sterile meetings wherein strategy is created and planning takes place and commitments given. It's an interesting contradiction.
Once again, recalling the previous adaptation, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" (which defined the word "obscure"), as often as Hollywood tries, le Carre' is not a writer whose fiction translates easily to the screen. There is to his work a ponderous quality, deliberate and careful to the point of yawning. His stories, hence the films, are not about movement. By design, they are an intricate web, meant to be deconstructed one strand at a time. For many, it is good storytelling. As for good filmmaking? Not so much.
"A Most Wanted Man" will find an audience. Huge perhaps. But will filmgoers be entertained? Maybe.