Film reviews: A Most Wanted Man | A Dangerous Game

The late Philip Seymour Hoffman shines in shades of grey as Le Carré’s German spy in A Most Wanted Man
Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Gunther Bachmann in A Most Wanted Man. Picture: ContributedPhilip Seymour Hoffman stars as Gunther Bachmann in A Most Wanted Man. Picture: Contributed
Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Gunther Bachmann in A Most Wanted Man. Picture: Contributed

A Most Wanted Man (15)

Director: Anton Corbijn

Running time: 122 minutes

Rating: * * * *

Spying: it’s not all cocktails, casinos and cool gizmos. That would be your James Bond. On the other hand, a John le Carré spook is fuelled by cigarettes, chips and coffee spiked with whisky. Forget loud soundtracks and jacked-up editing, this is austerity espionage and there’s not much action in A Wanted Man, unless you count an overweight man chugging uncomfortably through the streets of Hamburg.

The cruder and more callous our pulp diversions become, the more crucial Le Carré seems to be in portraying spies and realpolitik on film as a crunch of expediency, betrayal and resignation. In his stories, as in Graham Greene’s, heroes and villains don’t come in black and white but shades of grey. Presented with such foggy ambiguity, no wonder many movie directors reach for their muted beige and taupe palettes. That certainly applies to dutch filmmaker Anton Corbijn, who made the controlled Control but also George Clooney’s awful, pretentious assassin picture The American. At times Philip Seymour Hoffman’s florid complexion and yellow-white hair are the brightest things in this melancholy fug.

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Hoffman is German intelligence operative Günther Bachmann, transferred to Hamburg, where he seems to be the only cast member in possession of a credible “Chermann akzent”. Is Hamburg a punishment for botching an earlier assignment? “Depends on how you feel about Hamburg,” says Günther.

His intelligence unit are watching Issa (handsomely doleful Russian actor, Grigoriy Dobrygin), who has smuggled himself into Germany after being tortured in Turkish and Russian prisons. Günther’s bosses want to pull him in immediately, but Günther’s instinct is that this is a minnow who could bring in bigger fish, such as a wealthy Muslim (Homayoun Ershadi) who may be funnelling money for Islamic terrorism, if they can coerce Issa’s beauteous immigration lawyer (Rachel McAdams) into their deception.

This is a multi-level chess game, not just between Günther and Issa but between Günther and his antsy bosses, as well as a steely CIA agent (Robin Wright) representing American interests in a city which once harboured the 9/11 terrorists.

The slow-burn tangle of plots and counter-plots involving a largish cast might have been better served if the story had spun out into a TV series like Homeland or The Honourable Woman. As it is, condensed plot turns feel like glib tropes, while intriguing personalities go undeveloped. In particular it seems a pity to waste Willem Dafoe’s taut international banker, while Daniel Brühl – excellent as Niki Lauda in Rush – is reduced to playing a backroom assistant, wearing surveillance headphones and a frown.

Still, it is Phillip Seymour Hoffman you watch – not because this is his very last major film appearance, but because he is such a good fit as Günther. Corbijn may tend to favour vague, vaporous stylings, but Hoffman brings focus that snaps the film out of somnabulism.

One scene where, to avoid blowing his cover during an operation, Gunther kisses his second-in-command (Nina Hoss) manages to compress a desperate, repressed attraction within an acrobatic feat of minimalism.

A Dangerous Game (PG)

* * * *

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“You have zero talent,” tweets Donald Trump to his most assiduous follower, Montrose filmmaker Anthony Baxter, after starring in the 2011 documentary You’ve Been Trumped. But like his judgment on what constitutes a persuasive hairstyle, the billionaire is wrong. Baxter (right) has a talent for getting under the skin of the evasive and the self-aggrandising.

A pity then, that Alex Salmond refuses to be interviewed by Baxter about his role in overturning the protection of Aberdeenshire’s Menie estate. As the constituency MSP, Salmond intervened to enable a site of special scientific significance to be sold to Trump for redevelopment as a golf course. Trump failed to deliver the completed resort, and created a fraction of the jobs promised, after destroying an environmental treasure and bullying locals by using construction to cut off their water, electricity and scenic views.

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By turns enraging, entertaining and discursive, A Dangerous Game updates us on The Donald, who finally allows Baxter a sit-down interview, and it fills us in on the bigger picture. In the US, the Middle East and eastern Europe, golf resorts are being planned for the wealthy at great ecological cost. In Croatia, a public vote against building a golf course freighted with unpredictable environmental consequences is likely to be overturned.

Like the Scottish Government, Dubrovnik’s local officials are eager to attract rich swingers, even if the legitimacy of their actions leaves ordinary citizens teed off.

On general release

In Order Of Disappearance (15)

* * *

The reliably great Stellan Skarsgård stars as a snowplough driver who goes on a vengeful rampage against drug dealers after his son is murdered. A slice of Nordic noir with surprising black comedy and some pretty spectacular deaths. Very Coen brothers.

Glasgow Film Theatre and Edinburgh Filmhouse, Friday to 25 September

Island Of Lemurs: Madagascar (3D) (U)

* * *

Morgan Freeman narrates this IMAX 3D documentary about the soulful primates extinct everywhere except for an island off the coast of southern Africa. The photography is vibrant, the lemurs adorable, and aside from some mild eco-lecturing, the tone is warm and fuzzy.

On general release

The Guest (18)

* * *

Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens stars as a polite American soldier who visits a grieving family, claiming to be a friend of their late son. Character development and plotting are squaddy-bashingly basic, but despite a histrionic final act, it’s better than peeling potatoes in jankers.

On general release

The Boxtrolls (3D) (PG)

* * *

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Children’s animation about a tribe of trolls, apparently distant visual cousins to Fungus the Bogeyman, who adopt and raise a human child in their underground steampunk lair. Above ground the denizens of Cheesebridge revere cheese and fear the gargoyles. It has the makings of a Roald Dahl doodle, but this is all quirk, no charm. It features the voices of Ben Kingsley, Richard Ayoade, Jared Harris, Elle Fanning and Simon Pegg.

On general release from Friday

Watermark (PG)

* *

Five years in the making, Edward Burtynsky and Jennifer Baichwal have shaped a gorgeous cascade of images of water. Great for IMAX theatres, but it’s got the hypnotic, brain-emptying quality of a lava lamp.

Glasgow Film Theatre, today and Tuesday