Director Anton Corbijn didn’t set himself an easy task in adapting John le Carré’s 2008 novel. Le Carré’s work is notorious both for his dour look at the world of spying and his intricate, complex plots. So here Corbijn and scriptwriter Andrew Bovell have created a film in which every detail is vital. There are no dead patches here, no moments where you can safely duck out for a minute to check your phone. Every line of dialogue pushes the scene forward, every scene pushes the story forward, and if your attention wanders – or even if you assume you’re watching a more traditional kind of thriller, one where the fate of nations is at stake and gun battles and car chases eventually sort out who’s right from wrong – you’ll find yourself lost.
When Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) hauls himself out of the bay in the port city of Hamburg, he drops himself in trouble. Hamburg was where the 9/11 plotters put together their scheme and nobody – not the local authorities, not the German state, not the CIA – wants to let anything like that happen again. Günter Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his final role ) sees things a little differently. A rumpled, hard-drinking man haunted by a security failure in Beirut, he now runs a tiny top-secret counter-intelligence agency tasked with infiltrating the local Muslim community. His job is to work up the ladder – get a minor player on side, then get them to help you get their boss on side, and so on – until the really big fish are in your grasp. Bachmann’s desk-bound rival in the security services, Intelligence chief Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), wants to haul Karpov in. Bachmann wants to keep him on the streets to see where he might lead – especially if he leads to another case he’s working on involving a shipping company that could be a vital terrorist money source.
With this much plot to get through there’s not a lot of room for character moments. Bachmann himself might be in every scene but the moments that detail his character are few and far between: a bar fight, snapping at a colleague, his gradual warming ever-so-slightly towards the local CIA chief (Robin Wright).
It’s a grim but compelling look at a dirty job in a very grubby world; the fact that it’s also the world we live in makes it all the more compelling.
Written by Anthony Morris