First 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.”
The 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