A MOST WANTED MAN by John le Carré

LeCarre-A-Most-Wanted-ManFirst published in 2008, this ultra-topical spy thriller by John le Carré (whose work I previously profiled here) deals with money laundering, political asylum, extraordinary rendition and the ambiguities surrounding the tactics used in the ‘war on terror.’ It has now been turned into a movie, so I thought it might be a good time to have a look at the original and its adaptation, which includes the last lead performance by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. We begin in Hamburg and the arrival of a man on the run …

The following is offered for P atti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, today hosted by BV Lawson of In Reference to Murder; and Katie’s Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for reviews, click here)

“Well just remember you’re all fighting the same enemy,” said Erna Frey tartly, “One another.”

The basic story is actually fairly simple – the bastard Chechen son of a corrupt Russian general, now deceased, arrives in Hamburg where he will be able to collect a huge inheritance from a private bank. A local lawyer tries to help and contacts the head of the bank, who finds himself swayed not least by the fact that she reminds him of his absent daughter. The claimant, however, while having gravitated towards the money in search of salvation from his own horrors, doesn’t want to touch the cash as he knows it is tainted, the result of countless illegal acts by his father – but his lawyer knows it is the only leverage available as he is on the run from the police after being jailed and tortured. Named Issa (which in Islam is another name for Jesus, as we are reminded), he is a Candide-like innocent who wants to preach the word of Allah and become a doctor (and maybe even a lawyer). Clearly traumatised by his years in jail (he is innocent of any real wrongdoing), he earns the sympathy of his idealistic young lawyer Annabel Richter and the middle-aged Scottish banker Tommy Brue, both of whom identify with Issa’s issues with his father.

At a human level, we become deeply involved in the intertwined fates of our central trio: will Issa take the money and manage to avoid going back to prison? Will Tommy save his ailing bank? And what of his burgeoning relationship with Annabel – is she the daughter he never really had or is there something even deeper? And will Annabel be able to save her client and herself? Things become much more complex when she is kidnapped by the German secret service and interrogated by Gunther Bachmann and his partner, Erna Frey, and Tommy is blackmailed by the MI6, who it turns out were in cahoots with his late father …

“When somebody half your age barges into your life and appoints herself your moral mentor, you sit up and listen, you have to.”

LeCarre-A-Most-Wanted-Man-pbThe plot development is typically complex, le Carré coming to the narrative in oblique fashion as it is slowly revealed that the German, British and American security services all want to make their own separate use of the three protagonists as part of the co-called ‘war on terror,’ a phrase that even seasoned security operative Gunther Bachmann hesitates to use. Ultimately we see everyone becoming compromised when pressure is brought to bear – who will live and who will die and who will retain even a vestige of their integrity and idealism? For their all their elaboration and complication of plot, the best of le Carré’s novels usually boil down to an individual choosing, usually for love, to go to the ‘other side’ and challenge the established order and the world to which they have seemingly always belonged or pledged allegiance. This ‘betrayal’ can be one of class, country, profession or politics and can be seen in books as outwardly different as  The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), A Perfect Spy (1986), The Russia House (1989) and The Constant Gardner (2001) – and it is once again explored here. In this book the relationship between Annabel and Tommy is marginalised compared with say The Russia House as it is their relationships with Issa and their respective spy handlers that dominates. Ultimately though we realise that even seasoned pro Bachmann is being ‘handled’ so that the outcome is impossible to predict. The Russia House and The Constant Gardner are perhaps more affecting ultimately, but this is very recognisable as being a work by the author of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and it is impossible not to admire how he has continued to stay on top of geopolitical changes without losing his focus on the human factor (also the title of Graham Greene’s sympathetic treatment of a Philby-like traitor).

The film version, which is a little bit static and slow like Corbjin’s previous thriller, The American, perhaps predictably refocuses the narrative so that spy Gunther Bachmann (Hoffman) is the absolute protagonist, which given that it was to be the actor’s last starring performance, is something to be truly grateful for. This also means that the generally faithful adaptation by Andrew Bovell, which updates a few things and doesn’t even bother to use the phrase ‘extraordinary rendition’ in fact, privileges the intelligence side of the story, with all their inter-departmental squabbles and infighting, giving extra prominence to the character of Martha, a nasty CIA agent who only has one major scene in the book but here appears throughout, played by the luminous Robin Wright. This means that the trio of characters at the heart of the book – Issa, Annabel and Tommy – all get a bit relegated to the background, their related subplots nearly all eliminated, though Bovell creates a new subplot involving the son of a terror suspect. The storyline remains unaltered from the book, but Gunther is really our only identification now. While a bit of a shame (especially for Dafoe, who really has much too little to do here as Tommy except add to the marquee value) as it makes the story less moving, is none the less handled with his usual magnificence by Hoffman, who manages to embody much of the contrasting feeling and attitudes originally distributed between the other characters. More than anything, the film is a testament to his extraordinary art and a reminder of just what a sad loss his early death was.

A Most Wanted Man
Director: Anton Corbijn
Producer: Andrea Calderwood, Simon Cornwell, Stephen Cornwell, Gail Egan
Screenplay: Andrew Bovell
Cinematography: Benoit Delhomme
Art Direction: Sebastian T. Krawinkel
Music: Herbert Grönemeyer
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Bachmann), Rachel McAdams (Annabel), Willem Dafoe (Tommy), Grigoriy Dobrygin (Issa), Nina Hoss (Irna [Erna]), Daniel Brühl, Robin Wright, Vicky Krieps

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in Espionage, Germany, John le Carre and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to A MOST WANTED MAN by John le Carré

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – I’ve always thought le Carré very good at portraying different character levels and sometimes dilemmas. That’s an unusual thing to find in a spy or other thrillers, so I’ve always respected that about him. And this sounds no different. And you’re reminding me of how much Hoffman is missed…

    • Thank you Margot – le Carre has clearly modelled much of his work on Graham greene but I think he has truly succeeded in bringing an ethical, moral and political dimension to his spy books and deserves a huge amount of credit. Definitely see this film for the masteclass from Mr hoffman.

  2. le0pard13 says:

    Fine write-up, Sergio. Makes me want to take in the film even more now.

  3. neer says:

    Never read this author but since his focus is on the ‘human factor’ perhaps I should read him now. Which one would you say I should start with?

    • Hello Neer – I am a huge fan of course – his made a really strong debut with Call for the Dead and I think that would be a great place to start (I reviewed it here, which introduces his series character George Smiley – follow that with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and then maybe Tinker Tailor Soldoer Spy. Of his most recent works, I would really reccommed The Russia House and The Constant Gardner as being especially good, though The little Drummer Girl is nowadays unfairly neglected – sadly its take on the Arab-Israeli conflict seems not to have dated at all …

  4. Yvette says:

    I’m hesitant to say that I’ve never read any John LeCarre, Sergio – but it’s the truth. I was never a big fan of spy books and I admit that until I read Eric Ambler, I didn’t even know that I would like them. Funny thing, I do like spy films. Go figure.

    I’ve saved this film to my Netflix queue, Sergio. Hoffman was such a gifted actor..

    • Thanks Yvette. Hope you like the film – and I would really recommend you try The Constant Gardner (which was also made into a pretty decent movie with Rachel Weizs and Ralph Fiennes).

  5. Colin says:

    I’m actually hoping to catch this one on the weekend, before it disappears from the cinemas here. Hoffman;s death was a sad loss, a real tragedy as he clearly had so much still to offer as an actor.
    The fact this movie is by Corbijn attracts me too as I liked The American a lot, a good character piece with a fine role for Clooney.

    • It is certainly a companion piece to that film – I prefer this one (I found the Clooney film, despite its many attractions, maybe a bit too studied and airless in its approach to the classic European version of the hitman on the run story) – Hoffman is just fantastic and it’s such a shame that his own demons won out. I did enjoy this one a lot, pretty much just for him – but it’s a huge role and he fills it magnificently – hope you enjoy it chum. The book is, non the less, in many ways better …

      • Colin says:

        Well, I hope I do get to see it tomorrow – that’s the plan anyway.

        Yes, The American isn’t perfect but it does feature the wondrous Violante Placido, and that makes up for an awful lot.

        • I did enjoy The American, honest, and she of course is a peach (and comes from a great acting herotage) but on the other hand, her role is so ansurdly cliched (which I know was part of the retro feel, but… ) and she is so much younger than her leading man and nowadays, I do find that creepy. I know, it’s a movie convention, but, but … and yet, I love Clooney, it was shot in my beloved Italy and there is much to enjoy. Might have been better is Soderbergh had made it though as I think he has a better grasp on how to revitalise old grenre tropes …

          • Colin says:

            All valid enough criticisms but I can’t say any of that bothered me too much.

          • Yes, well, exactly – in the end it is extremely well executed, great cast, great locations and a really solid story – just because I wanted a bit more shouldn’t take away from what it delivers, I agree. Really curious to know what you make of the film. I’m just reading Gone Girl, specifically because I’s had it one the shelf for ages and though I would never get round to it after the seeing the film – having read the trailer, it looks incredibly close. With the le Carre you can enjoy it very differently front he film actually – which to me is a total bonus 🙂

          • Colin says:

            Generally, I enjoy Le Carre adaptations – probably more than the books if I’m going to be really honest. Anyway, if I see this tomorrow I’ll hopefully be able to contribute something more intelligent – I’m essentially just spitballing here at the moment. 🙂

          • Will this be with subtitles in Greek, or …?

          • Colin says:

            Oh subtitles. Films are always screened, on TV too, in their original language here.

          • Much better to have subtitles, though movie dubbing in places like Italy is usually very expertly done (TV not so much, for obvious reasons)

  6. I read the book when it was published and saw the movie with Philip Seymour Hoffman (his last leading role) a few months ago. Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer the early Le Carre books. The later books aren’t as compelling. However, I have listened to Le Carre reading on audio books. He’s a brilliant reader!

    • Thanks for that George – I always enjoy his interviews but have not actually hard his audibooks, great tip. Have you ever heard the radio adaptations starring Simon Russel Beale as Smiley? They are absolutely first class. I know exactly what you mean about the differences with his earlier work (especially his output from the 60s), though for me the upside in his change of approach is that he has produced in The Russia House and The Constant Gardner two if his very best works in my view.

  7. Richard says:

    I have only read the Karla books, and found them dense, character driven works with so many underlying subplots – as one gets from the best spy fiction – that I can read only 30-40 pages at a time. I think those books were enough LeCarre for me, but I may re-read them someday.

    • I am not, it should be said, actually a big fan of those – they always seemed much too slow frankly. I much prefer the 60s classic like Call for the Dead and Spy Who Came in from the Cold and, as mentioned before, The Russia House and The Constant Gardner from hsi mroe recent work, the latter offering less oblique storytelling and much stronger character depiction it seems to me for a more integrated, and in the end more satisfying, whole.

  8. I read a JLeCarre book every year or two, and always enjoy them without feeling the need to track them all down. He always seems like a lovely man when you read or see interviews… I’m more likely to read the book one day than see this film – as ever, great review of both Sergio.

  9. TracyK says:

    I am so far behind on Le Carre books, and I love that kind of writing. I was going to re-read the Smiley books and haven’t gotten far with that either. Another project for 2015. Definitely have to see that movie. But I will read the book first.

    Great post, Sergio, I really enjoyed it.

  10. robert says:

    It’s strange but I think many people become aware of PS Hoffman only after the Capote movie, which was quite late. I was also a little bit surprise to see him in the boat that rocked (good film), maybe because I was expecting to see him as the lead character in a film after his role as Capote.
    I also read he started his career in an episode of Law and Order in 1991. I remember the early series with Noth and Dzundza as the police, and B. Stone and R. Brooks as the legal team. And I can barely believe it was almost 25 years ago!

    As for J. Le Carre I must admit I know the films much more than the books. I saw the Russia house and remember saying to myself that this film looked a little more like real life spying than many I had seen. Not so much because I knew how secret services were operating (I don’t) but because it was not over the top story. It seems clearly possible, with no complicated murders every other scene, no strange assassins using exotic tools to kill everybody around. It looked almost like a french spy film… 🙂
    the other good thing with spying films, is that you can always make a double agent a triple one 🙂 that probably helps to tie everything together when you write such novels.

    • Thanks Robert – Hoffman certainly came to prominence early but for the most part played supporting roles (even in the likes of Mission Impossible III) – he is amazing as Capote (especially when you know physically how different he really was from the real man) – so the films in which he predominates are certainly to be cherished. And yes, Russia Hous certainly feels more plausible with its one (off-screen) death and understated approach.

  11. Sergio, I really like John le Carré’s writing for its sober quality and besides he rarely goes overboard. His stories sound realistic, as do his characters. I haven’t read this particular novel but I have enjoyed the ones I have, especially THE CONSTANT GARDNER whose film version was good.

  12. Pingback: SINGLE & SINGLE (1999) by John le Carré | Tipping My Fedora

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