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The frustration of the 144 minutes
What a difference an Extended Edition makes. For the first part we got some jolly embellishment. For The Desolation of Smaug we got bags more depth and character. For The Battle of the Five Armies, it may - I hope - be transformative. Because right now this feels like An Unfinished Journey.
It's as if, after all the complaints about splitting a pamphlet of a novel into three parts, Peter Jackson is playing a joke on us: This is what you get when you ask for Middle-earth-lite. Characters we've come to love or loathe arc into nothing; others (e.g. Beorn and Radagast) are given literally seconds of screen time; and for the first time in this prequel trilogy, a whole chapter (The Return Journey) is pretty much elided entirely.
I'd like to be clear on my admiration for what Peter Jackson has done with The Hobbit so far. For all The Lord of the Rings' mythic grandeur and complex world-building, there's a warm geniality and brisk impetus to these lovingly crafted films. And those qualities are married to a thematic depth missing from its bedtime story source. Home and borders are themes that have run through this trilogy, from Bilbo's (Martin Freeman) heartfelt declaration of solidarity at the end of An Unexpected Journey, to Kili's (Aidan Turner) fevered speech to Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) as she heals his wounds in Desolation, when they realise reconciliation is possible. Heck, I even like the addition of Tauriel - though her unsatisfying conclusion is perhaps typical of a final chapter that too often fails to tie up its loose ends.
The movie kicks off from precisely where the second ended, with the dread dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) descending upon Laketown. The citizens flee but nothing can stop the cataclysm - until a certain someone finds an ingenious way to pierce the beast. Then there's nemesis #2: Sauron (also Cumberbatch). We get to see some familiar faces face-off with this faceless monstrosity.
The story then enters its most intriguing phase: a kind of psychodrama involving Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his sickening relationship with gold and power. It's the one time we really glimpse that signature Jackson oddness, in a wonderful hallucinatory sequence where Thorin imagines he's sinking in a lake of gold.
The narrative follows the book fairly closely. This was, after all, the stage of the story where Professor Tolkien finally foregrounded politics and ethics and the machinations of characters ahead of adventure. The film is at its most successful in the quieter moments, as Thranduil (a subtle Lee Pace) ponders the duty of the elves; as Bard (a brooding Luke Evans) comes to the gate of the mountain to plead for peace; and as Thorin struggles with his "dragon-sickness" (i.e. greed), while Bilbo wrestles with the dilemma of what to do with a certain stolen gemstone.
Thorin was presented at first as this trilogy's Aragorn. But over time we've learned of the dangerous pride that ruined his grandfather. Thorin's hubris and arrogance is in stark contrast to Bilbo's very relatable and achievable traits of decency and humility. The gulf between them is intriguing and wisely plundered for drama. Armitage and Bilbo provide the best performances of the film - mostly internal; mostly in the eyes - and their farewell is one of the more moving moments in a trilogy that has largely prioritised humour over pathos.
The battle itself is undoubtedly impressive - great roaring hordes punctuated with spectacular giants - but in a sense it compounds the problem of the relatively truncated runtime. What was already the shortest Middle-earth film is rendered artificially even shorter by the fact that there's 45 minutes of virtually wordless fighting. By now we should all be braced for Super Legolas and his physics-defying fighting style. That reaches new heights here; as he sprints up a crumbling bridge like he's on the wrong escalator, it's like some sort of visual satire on the weightlessness of CGI.
With its last bastion and swarming armies, the titular battle resembles The Return of the King's Pelennor finale - yet that movie took breath between its showdowns. Galadriel vs. Sauron; Legolas vs. Bolg; Thorin vs. Azog... it's like we're watching someone finish off a video game but we're powerless to stop them skipping the tension- or character-building cutscenes. Moreover, the dubious editing decisions create some strange and jolting juxtapositions and tonal lurches, and negate the sense of time passing or of great distances being crossed.
The result is a film that really earns its status of "theatrical cut", insofar as it resembles many a boisterous blockbuster. This is fairly damning criticism for a Middle-earth movie, usually so luxurious and layered in its sense of a unique world. There's plenty of meat here - but where are the bones that hold it all together? 11 months away, perhaps.
Mr. Morgan's Last Love (2013)
The walking dead
Sandra Nettelbeck's zombified film, based upon the French novel La Douceur Assassine, ostensibly opens where Michael Haneke's Amour ended. But while Haneke's film sought to challenge our principles and provoke topical debate, Nettelbeck's is more likely to challenge the patience and provoke irritation in all but the most undemanding. The dialogue is trite, the relational dynamics are soapy, and the tone is sentimental.
Matthew Morgan (Michael Caine) has just put his wife (Jane Alexander) to eternal sleep. He's condemned to shuffling around his plush Parisian apartment, now an echoing mausoleum, until such a time that he plucks up the courage to meet his wife in the thereafter. But his dwindling existence is suddenly electrified when he's hit upon (or, contrives to be hit upon) by a young dance instructor named Pauline (Clémence Poésy). Her father is dead. "You remind me of my father," she tells Matthew. This gives you an idea of the sort of script we're dealing with.
The essential premise, which wavers between faintly creepy and screw-faced baffling, wouldn't be such a problem if there were deeper layers of drama underneath. But it's all surface. Potentially difficult issues e.g. assisted suicide are brushed against gently, while others are glossed over entirely e.g. the dubious sexual energy between lonely old Matthew and daddy's little princess Pauline. And this is before Matthew's vile children (Justin Kirk and Gillian Anderson) turn up to do some shopping and tell their dad he's selfish. It's a film world where characters are seemingly more interested in soap operatics than behaving like recognisable human beings; and where men and women relate like alien species.
Michael Caine is suitably bumbling and shell-shocked in the title role, even though, playing an American, he adopts a bizarre accent that prances across most of the Western hemisphere, often in the course of a single line. Poésy is adorable; except, beyond the basic knowledge of her own bereavement, we never truly understand what draws her so powerfully to Matthew, let alone why she sidles up to his hospital bed in a see-through top. Anderson provides a brief burst of energy, but it's a cameo really. The heavy lifting is left to Kirk, and it's a charmless delivery of a charmless character.
"It wasn't supposed to be like this!" cries Matthew. Another clunker of a line from a screenplay blandified to oblivion. No alarms and no surprises; the surreal, vanishing point horror that is spousal grief is rendered as hazy anaesthesia, where the senses are dulled until some younger model comes along to reawaken them. The sequences where Matthew relives conversations with his wife are presumably meant to represent reflective recollection, but I couldn't help wondering if they might be born of guilt for burying his face in Pauline's boobs while he wept for his loss.
The cinematography is a watercolour array of picture postcards depicting landmark Paris and quaint surrounding countryside, scored to trickling piano texture that doesn't so much complement the drama as provide a marshmallow mattress topper.
A film with a geriatric theme needn't be geriatric in pace and tone. It patronises the very people whose plight it seeks to illuminate. How about some psychological insight? Some effort to chart this melancholy territory? Okay, we see Matthew's desire to emerge from his malaise. But what does that malaise really look like? Feel like? By the end we're none the wiser, and one is left concluding that the film simply isn't trying hard enough on any level.
20,000 Days on Earth (2014)
He came along this road
We open with Nick Cave in bed. Soon he's half-naked before the mirror. But this semi-staged documentary is no warts-and-all exposé. The lighting is kind to Cave's boyish body, and his voice-over is as precisely prepared as it is passionate and poetic. This rehearsed vulnerability sets the tone for how directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard will portray their elusive subject.
Their approach provides Cave with an appropriate level of control. Control is essential to the process of self-mythologising. Cave is aware that myth is what gives popular artists their enduring legacy. It's not dishonesty. Myth contains truth: the truth of how art (and the artist) makes us feel, the senses it triggers and the images it conjures. And what images Cave has conjured over the decades; from surreal punk, through broken Americana, through dark ballads and blaring gospel rock and a parade of delicious dirges.
The focus on the recording of Push the Sky Away means we hear very little of The Bad Seeds' earlier work. We glimpse The Birthday Party (and a very amusing vignette it is). But Cave and his myriad members have gone through various phases, and we get no sense of these because we hear nothing of them. Do not go into this film expecting a retrospective. Do not expect chronology, or even much revelation. Do not expect to bring a virginal friend and open their eyes to the strange, bleak, sentimental narratives of Brighton's finest immigrant. And yet it is a film for virtually everyone; for those harbouring an idea and a glimmer of interest in the creative method.
You'll know from the trailer that Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue drop by for a ride in Cave's car. These scenes are more than just elaborate name-drops. They're framed as natural exchanges perhaps imagined or drawn from memory. Most moving is the conversation with ex-Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld, which has the air of some latent regret being cauterised.
Toward the beginning of the film there are a number of intense dialogues between Cave and the psychoanalyst Darian Leader. These scenes are deeply intimate and engaging, and it's a pity they fall away. It's indicative of the broader sense that 20,000 Days is truncated. Surely there's more footage. There is, surely, a three-hour edit of this movie, just as compelling and original and humorous. Yes, this is a double-edged criticism.
Elegantly shot and exquisitely edited, there's warmth in every frame of this movie, whether we're in the archives, scouring scuzzy photographs from Cave's youth, or in the pleasingly chaotic space surrounding the typewriter of dreams. Forsyth and Pollard carefully walk the line between hagiography and dehumanisation: Cave comes off as neither a fallen angel nor a mad recluse. But he does emerge an enigma. And that's okay, because that's how the man himself reckons we like our rock stars: slightly unreal, swaggering and contradictory, and bigger than God. I'm inclined to agree.
Brute Force (1947)
Take a break
Jules Dassin is best remembered for his seminal heist movie Rififi, which he made in Europe following his Hollywood blacklisting. Before this, in the immediate postwar period, this American director made a series of high-quality noir films on the other side of the pond, one of which was this bold prison break drama from 1947.
The plot focuses on Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) and the inmates of intimate cell R17. Sick of their ill treatment by the cruel Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn), and conscious of the impotence of Chief Barnes (Roman Bohnen) as well as the hopelessness of decent-yet-drunk Doctor Walters (Art Smith), they plan to take matters into their own hands, overthrow the governance, and escape.
The film earns its title. This is a brutal, bleak, and violent yarn by the standards of any era. But it was particularly shocking at the time not least, perhaps, because it sets aside the basic crime-doesn't-pay moral and asks the audience to sympathise wholly with the prisoners and hate the guards. This is achieved by portraying the prisoners as plucky underdogs. No trashy exploitation here, but something closer to the conscientious social outrage of Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront. Lancaster's performance doesn't approach Brando, but the style is similarly smouldering. Repressed rage; the power of the trodden man waiting to be unleashed.
The theme of power is personified by Munsey. "Kindness is actually weakness," is his mantra. Hume Cronyn is gloriously slimy in the role. Munsey is the most complex character, embodying the dangerously contained ambitions of the middle manager. Meanwhile, Doc Walters reckons the prison system is inherently flawed; that men emerge more broken than when they arrived. Then there's Overlord Barnes, weary and anxious and without strategy, responding to mass unrest by threatening to withdraw privileges from all, suppressing the inmates' individuality from the distant comfort of his office. The prison is run by this dysfunctional trio. No wonder a breakout is imminent.
The good guys are the chums of R17. Some are embellished in flashback. There's the tragic story of the man reminiscent of poor cuckolded George Peatty in Kubrick's The Killing who steals three grand to buy his materialistic wife a fur coat. Another wound up in the slammer after taking the rap when his wife shot her father dead to save their marriage. It's all melodramatic; all about trouble with women; all great black 'n' white storytelling with a few shades of grey. As for Joe, his gal needs an operation to fix her crippled legs, but she's not going for the operation until he's out. We get to see the sentimentality behind the main man's stony façade.
So, R17 is populated by lovable rogues and victims of circumstance. The rawness of Dassin's picture its relative naturalism for the time ensures that the setup isn't hopelessly idealised, but it is certainly romanticized, which is something that's matched by the rich aesthetic. The film looks glorious. The external sets are plausibly looming and stark, recalling the Expressionist roots upon which noir was built. The drama is frequently shot from awkward angles, giving the sense of confined spaces and enhancing the releasing power of the flashbacks. It's memory that sets the men free.
Finally, there is genuine tension and excitement in the final breakout sequence. Its violence is earned and its outcome is startling. It's a fittingly intense climax to a film that grips early and tight and doesn't let go. This is persuasive, fierce filmmaking.
I lossens time (2013)
Snow-swept Scandinavian bleakness. A terrible and mysterious murder. The steely face of Sofie Gråbøl. But The Killing this ain't. It's actually a very pedestrian psychological drama which strains credibility, and threatens to test the patience even at 90 minutes.
Gråbøl plays Helen, pleasingly introduced as a foul-mouthed priest. But then she's approached by a young psychologist named Lisbeth (Signe Egholm Olsen) who is conducting research on patients at a local psychiatric facility, and a potentially interesting character, embodying potentially interesting themes, is locked away for the rest of the movie. Lisbeth's research seems to involve giving small animals to violent inmates and then watching what happens on a monitor. Lisbeth asks Helen for help in getting through to Drengen (Frederick Christian Johansen) because he has started talking about God. Helen builds a rapport with the boy, and uncovers the truth about his troubled childhood and the defining relationship he enjoyed with his grandfather.
The problems with The Hour of the Lynx are mostly of the "Really?" variety. It's not just the idea of a psychologist hiring the nearest priest simply because her patient mentions the Almighty, nor the fundamental implausibility of Lisbeth's pet project. It's everything else, too. Why is Helen allowed to be alone in a cell with an unrestrained killer, who the authorities insist will murder without reason? Why don't Helen and Lisbeth discuss some kind of strategy for dealing with Drengen before bumbling in and arguing in front of him? How have the filmmakers managed to bungle what should be a pretty straightforward story with a flashbacking narrative that hops about so spasmodically? The two main performances, from Gråbøl and Johansen, are skillful and heartfelt. Søren Malling is solid, if stolid, as chief guard Knud. But then there's Olsen. She plays Lisbeth like a rabbit in headlights. It's partly the writing and partly the performance. Wearing a permanently startled expression, Lisbeth is a nervous presence, apparently unable to manage the dynamic between herself and her patients. Perhaps that's the point. Perhaps it's a statement on the hands-off, medication-focused state of modern psychiatry. But this isn't made clear, and the character simply comes off as hopelessly incompetent and unprofessional.
Aesthetically, the film has the look of TV, which may be appropriate for the bickering soap opera interplay between Helen and Lisbeth, but it's lethally uncinematic. The stock wilderness looks pretty but it plays no part in building character or atmosphere (other than reflecting the viewer's indifference). More evocative is Tobias Hylander's deep ambient score, subtly effective even when the drama is being unsubtly ineffective.
The film isn't a complete write-off. Once Drengen starts to open up, and we learn of his relationship with his grandfather, it's like we're watching a different movie. Fifteen minutes of moving, strange, compelling, credible human drama. This sequence made me more appreciative of the film's search for empathy, however flawed, as well as its laudable attempts at the debunking of madness-as-a-sickness. But it's too little too late for a silly film based on a lazy premise.
Love, Rosie (2014)
Sam Claflin and Lily Collins play Alex and Rosie, whom we watch grow from childhood friends to awkward adults, separated by sea but bound by heart. Bless. No contrivance is left uncontrived to keep them apart. Bad relationships. Babies. Even worse relationships. It's life, Jim, but not as we know it. Fans of the book may be dismayed to learn that the film deviates from the text in the final act although by then they might actually be glad we're not going the whole hog.
Conspicuously boring, the film lifelessly portrays the lives of two remarkably cute yet determinedly unremarkable people who seem to be making a conscious effort to build a semi-tragic love story while leaving a trail of half-loved partners in their wake. It's all building to an inevitable kiss. Unfortunately, a combination of poor editing, and rapid-onset attention deficit syndrome on my part, meant I went through the movie under the misapprehension that Alex and Rosie had already got jiggy at the start, which may have undermined some of the climactic impact.
The supporting cast is comprised of pantomime villain boyfriends, poisonously bitchy girlfriends, and an infinitely accommodating pro-life Catholic family. Rosie's best friend is one of those handily not-quite-as-pretty mates (Jaime Winstone) who says things bluntly and whose impossibly simple personal philosophy acts solely to highlight the needless complications of Rosie's own life.
This is a ruthlessly formulaic movie in which I lost count of the occasions that Alex or Rosie would come to the conclusion that they love each other, only to discover in the same instant that the other was committed elsewhere. Each dull revelation is followed by empowering montage, propelled by a listless soft rock soundtrack. The early slapstick humour all baby vomit and lost condoms is Carry On funny (by which I mean not funny) and gives way to more "grown-up" jokes of the blandly observational variety. Nothing that hasn't been noticed by countless Saturday night stand-ups.
This is unreal life depicted as a series of poetic coincidences, giving the illusion of fate. It's utterly disingenuous. What, perhaps, wistful 14-year-olds might imagine adult relationships are like. The rest of us are thinking: Get over it. Man up or move on. Somewhere there may be an interesting film to made about the way in which bleeding heart romantics skilfully maintain unconsummated tension over time, but this isn't it.
Claflin and Collins are likable leads, and with a decent script and a plausible story they might have showed some chemistry. But it's hard to connect cinematically over text, Skype, and eye-rolling narrative contrivance. I fear that audiences may find it similarly hard to connect with this film.
Il capitale umano (2013)
The cost of living
In the closing moments of this intricate drama, "Human capital" is defined as an insurance industry term, referring to the way damages payouts are calculated upon death, partly dependent on the individual's "emotional bonds". But the phrase more broadly refers to the way that the productivity and creativity of people can be converted into economic value. These definitions tell us everything we need to know about the themes at hand in Paolo Virzì's deconstruction of the Italian upper middle.
Human Capital is Italy's entry for next year's Academy Awards, and it's not hard to see why. It's a handsome, solid, complex, character-driven drama with an already award-winning performance from Valeria Bruni Tedeschi at its centre. She plays Carla Bernaschi, the wife of a businessman on the cusp of ruin. She persuades him to buy her a crumbling theatre a pet project as a gift. But it quickly becomes apparent that the theatre isn't economically viable. It'll have to be converted into flats instead.
The film is full of such soul-crushing moments. One needn't look far for metaphors. The various subplots revolve around a car crash (The Crash), and the fallout which threatens to ruin those at the bottom of the social ladder, leaving those at the top untainted. One needn't, also, look far for comparisons: Paul Haggis's award-friendly Crash, and the work of Alejandro Iñárritu, in the way that chronologically concurrent stories are shown one after another.
But Virzì's film is less aggravatingly worthy than the work of Haggis and less laborious than Iñárritu's English-language work. Indeed, the first of four "chapters" plays out with wicked dry humour, as Dino Ossola (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) desperately claws at the deal of a lifetime in order to break into the business elite. He's trying to seduce that wretched husband of Carla's, Giovanni (Fabrizio Gigfuni), but he only recognises the capital, not the humanity. It leaves Carla bereft; searching for meaning and affection. Meanwhile, both the Ossolas and the Bernaschis are bound by their kids. Serena Ossola (Matilde Gioli, resembling a younger Eva Green) knows something about the car crash, and the cost of keeping or revealing the secret is where the real meaning of the film's title will become known.
Virzì's style starts out dead pretty; all fairy tale lighting and wintry wonderlands, mirroring the illusory worlds the wealthy (or would-be-wealthy) inhabit. But as the cost of these characters' decisions become known, the camera leaves the tripod and the style gets grittier. Virzì is clearly aware of the inherent humour and horror in seeing the same events from multiple perspectives. While comedy gives way to tragedy, the twists and turns don't feel manipulative, and ultimately this is a story imbued with hope. In part this is due to the villain of the piece the apparently heartless Giovanni never being reduced to a mere monster.
The structure does mean that at times the chronology of events becomes muddled. It's not always completely clear how much time is supposed to have passed between scenes, leading to some false impressions of certain relationships. And, inevitably for such a tightly woven story, narrative contrivance and convenience is never far away. But then, what does one expect from a morality play? And a thoroughly modern one at that. This is an intelligent, accessible film, wise to focus on the most interesting characters in the room: those on the margins; those with most to lose. A fine contender.
The Guest (2014)
Come in, make yourself uncomfortable
I was convinced this film was set in the 1980s until someone whipped out a laptop. The retro aesthetic recalls Nicolas Winding Refn's interminable Drive, but this is a far smarter and snappier film. Dan Stevens even resembles Ryan Gosling, except Stevens remembered to pack his charisma. In a star-making performance, he's mesmerising as an angel-eyed demon. Fans of Downton Abbey may be surprised to find him affecting a soft Southern American drawl and stabbing women in the heart.
Stevens plays David, who turns up on the doorstep of the grieving mother of his Marine unit buddy. He claims to have been friends with her son; to have watched him die. David gradually seduces the entire family: preying on the parents' emotional vulnerabilities; protecting the son from bullies; flashing his pecs to the daughter. There's great enjoyment and inherent humour in the fact that we know he's up to no good while the family fall for his pragmatic charms. (Hitchcock would have been grunting with delight.) Only when the bodies start piling up do the family start asking questions of their guest.
Apart from Stevens, all the actors bring their "A" game, to be fair. I particularly enjoyed Leland Orser's perennially nervous father, with his sad eyes and his burgeoning alcoholism, still in the denial stage. Maika Monroe also gets a juicy role as the hormonal daughter, negotiating her way around a community of jock douchebags and petty drug dealers.
CGI-free and reference-heavy, from the towering title font to the moody synth score, this is a direct throwback to those late-'80s/early-'90s domestic stalker thrillers that we 30-somethings remember watching in secret on fuzzy VHS. The Hitcher, Cape Fear, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Sleeping with the Enemy et al all loom heavy, along with countless movies with words like "Fatal" and "Deception" in the title. At its best it's like John Carpenter in his ruthlessly efficient heyday.
The first two thirds of the film are an engrossing and surprisingly plausible slow burn, before events surge inexorably toward the pyrotechnic. The final act is bold but nonsensical, failing to live up to what preceded it. But overall this is superior, nasty B-movie fun, and far more inventive and darkly witty than Adam Wingard's previous film, the strangely overrated You're Next. Highly recommended.
Let's Be Cops (2014)
Brothers in law
This high-concept comedy from Luke "The Girl Next Door" Greenfield looks like it's going to be a knock-off Jump Street. Which it is, except it's somehow not terrible. Okay, the LOL-rate is barely high enough to fill the film, let alone warrant a sequel, but it stumbles through on goofy charm, decent storytelling, and no little chemistry between its leads.
Damon Wayans Jr and Jake Johnson play Justin and Ryan, dumb and dumber respectively. They've hit 30 and their lives are going nowhere fast. One is a lame-ass video games designer while the other is still living off the royalties from a herpes awareness advert. After a mix-up they find themselves at a masquerade ball, dressed as cops. The party's a disaster, but the walk of shame is a revelation: chicks dig the uniform. So the pair buy a cheap replica police car from eBay and start playing a game of law enforcement. Needless to say, once they get embroiled in an investigation into evil Andy Garcia's crystal meth dealership, stuff gets heavy.
The central concept is edgy enough to carry the film through its weaker moments. The idea of law enforcers abusing their position is borderline; the idea of illegal imposters abusing the position of law enforcers is something else namely, something that did not go down terribly well with US critics. But don't let the Metascore put you off completely.
The relative success of Let's Be Cops lies in its plotting, which is above-average for this type of movie, and also in its general good nature. The humour may fall flat as frequently as it soars, but at least the script is not a gross-out parade, and it isn't really out to 'get' anyone. Justin even apologises for making a racist joke at one point. The best bits are in the banter: the verbal interplay between Wayans Jr and Johnson, pairing up again after TV's New Girl. Whenever the humour broadens into slapstick the laughter dwindles sharply, the low point being a wrestle with an obese naked man a nonsensical scene shamelessly nicked from Borat.
The bad guys are genuinely threatening, particularly James D'Arcy's Max Cady-like thug. D'Arcy is playing hugely against type and it's scary as hell. This occasional sense of menace infuses the film particularly in its strangely moralistic final stretch with some bipolar tonal shifts. But then, Beverley Hills Cop had similar issues, and it's preferable to playing it safe for 90 minutes.
Let's Be Cops is a fun night out, about on a par with the Jump Street sequel. The title, the poster, the concept, the lead pairing
everything screams stupidity. No excuses. Expect dumbness and you won't be disappointed.
A Most Wanted Man (2014)
Philip Seymour Hoffman: A most missed man
Anton Corbijn's third feature is a solemn thriller that connects topical geo-social politics with the mundanity of everyday spycraft. It occupies the same brown-drenched bureaucratic landscape as an earlier John Le Carre adaptation, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. But while Tomas Alfredson's film was all about its dreary '70s setting, A Most Wanted Man brings the dreariness into the realm of post-9/11 (or 11/09, to give it a region-appropriate designation).
The plot is typically detailed and dense. Not so much twisty as, well, untrusting. A young Chechen man named Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) washes up in Hamburg, seeking asylum. He's an illegal immigrant promised a vast sum of dirty money by his late father. It's money he doesn't want. Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his espionage team, via an idealistic lawyer (Rachel McAdams), arrange for Karpov to donate the inheritance to a high-profile Muslim philanthropist, in order to entrap the latter as he siphons the funds into a terrorist organisation. Naturally, things get messy, and the movie spends most of its time in a very grey area indeed.
After Control and The American, Corbijn is exploring another talented, troubled man, adrift and alone in a thankless world. The film belongs to Seymour Hoffman, transforming yet again, embodying the chain-smoking, coffee-spiking, yet professional spy at the story's heart. We know few facts about Bachmann, yet we feel like we know him (which is perhaps the definition of a great screen character). He's taciturn and monotone; haggard and stooped yet quietly confident, as if he's seen it all and won enough times to keep going. Just.
So, it's an actor's movie. Robin Wright revels in a snaky supporting role, representing the brutal pragmatism of the U.S., and Rachel McAdams makes the most of a gruelling role as a woman trying to do good in a world that rewards evil equally often.
Corbijn's film doesn't give away the magician's tricks we are usually one step behind Gunther and his crew, watching as their plans unfold and succeed or fail before our eyes. It keeps the narrative ticking along, albeit slowly.
The pace isn't my main problem it's the insufficient sense of danger. I don't think this is to do with the lack of car chases or scarily efficient murders. What's lacking is the shadow of imminent loss. A better film starring Seymour Hoffman such as The Ides of March managed this, so why not A Most Wanted Man? Perhaps it's more generic than it first appears. I mean, once the main players are introduced, it's fairly predictable how things will turn out; who the real bad guys will be. It feels like there's a killer moment a scene of real cinematic distinction missing from the movie.
And what about Karpov? I never got a handle on his plight. I was never moved by his agonising principles. It's as if Corbijn is so focused on nailing the minutiae of espionage that he forgot about the subtleties of the heart.
Slow, precise, atmospheric all good things, although this is less emotionally involving than Control and not as bold and distinctive as The American. It's a mature, well-written, ensemble film, but one which lacks the oppressive dread and nail-biting urgency to be truly memorable.
We will, however, remember its supremely talented star. In the final shot, we realise how appropriate a swansong this is for the great, big man: understated, ambiguous, and secretly sad.