Twenty one novels into a career spanning five decades, studded with frequent accolades and critical appreciation, John le Carré is the dictionary definition of prolific. While his latest offering, A Delicate Truth, is the golden accessory of one Frank Lampard, in the past decade his work has undergone a renaissance on the silver screen.
Returning to the role of executive director, le Carré finds himself on set for the third time in a decade: The Constant Gardener swept Rachel Weisz to an Academy Award in 2006 and an unrivalled British ensemble cast brought the complexities of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to a bountiful BAFTA Awards in 2012. Add Our Kind of Traitor, currently being shot with the ginger ninjas of Damian Lewis and Ewan McGregor and a veritable le Carré dynasty is being committed to film. This is because of an untarnished catalogue of genre defining spy classics and the resurgence in paranoia and paraphernalia for all things espionage in a post-Snowden world. With the Reds firmly back under Ukrainian beds and the mainstream media stoking a post- 9/11 populist cascade of Islamophobia, it seems John le Carré has been cryogenically frozen and wakened for a trumpet blasting career swansong in the ice sculpture of a neo-Cold War world.
Le Carré, a failed spy himself, has always dealt with the reverse of the stereotypical version of a spy. Swap Gary Oldman for Daniel Craig and Philip Seymour Hoffman for Pierce Brosnan and it quickly becomes apparent that these writers deal two very different visions of the same world. For Fleming the flash of a martini glass and wink of a cigarette, enticing the reader into a high street of gleaming storefronts and endless potential for the capitalistic tastes of hero Bond, with his duplicitous dedication to brands; meanwhile, for le Carré, there is the other side, dependency: lost souls at Alcoholics Anonymous, wandering the darkened backstreets of futility. Fleming flames the romantic tip of the cigarette, all elegance and twinkle; le Carré vents the tar stained carcinogens of the black nicotine, straight into the coughing lungs of his characters. They are two extremes of the same vice.
Against the backdrop of this smoking furnace of desperation and isolation, it is almost impossible for le Carré’s web of characters to breathe beneath the time restraints of an adaptation. Under Anton Corbijn’s direction, the balancing responsibilities of action and character are harnessed effectively. Paramount to connecting with a le Carré novel is the intellectual endeavour of offering your full and undivided attention to the plot. This remains the case with the screen versions. Corbijn navigates the intricacies carefully; guiding, but never patronising and most importantly never, ever revealing or ruining the suspense. At its best, the action is always accelerating. The central chase scene has moments of genuine excitement as the protagonists break all Germanic platform protocol. Customary with this novelist, the primary locus of action is the inaction of a simple signature, getting all the agents into a sweaty palaver of panic in the back of a surveillance van.
Though John le Carré is a writer of espionage novels, a genre synonymous with suspense and thrills, as with any accomplished writer, the skill lies in the subtlety with which he develops themes through his characters. The relationship between fathers and their children looms large across the work, but on screen, it feels tangential and a distraction from the driving forces of the film. The loyalty and moral dilemma of Jamal, underplayed beautifully by Mehdi Dehbi, is the exception as he plays a son sought to deliver his own father as a pawn for the sweaty palms of the super spies of surveillance. As for the domestic politics of ‘terrorist social worker’, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), who has a predictably rebellious streak against her rich father leading her into an ever downward spiralling vortex of deceit and danger, the role feels more buxom butt on a bike than any grand example of a woman’s power. She is trapped, lost and scared, and the only glimmer of beauty in a Hamburg of stiff men and lurking threat; feminist emancipation this is not. Elsewhere, Willem Dafoe’s class is underused as banker Brue, but in an unlikely screen partnership, he plays off McAdams’ Richter perfectly as the pair share their collective ignorance of the grander scheme.
Philip Seymour Hoffman. The man is a clause unto himself, a syntactical entity, in need of no embellishment because he furnishes himself. As Günther Bachmann, he fuels the fire triangle lighting every one of his scenes with an afterglow of radiance beneath that foppish fringe and strikingly dominant brow. He broods and skulks, spewing German accented English like no one else before or since, grasping and cradling the character under his own special sway. Watching the newly German Hoffman as Günther, rubbing wounds with the real enemy, the Americans, all aloof, but ever present, is a real joy. We stalk his agent, washed up in Hamburg, with a backstory in Beirut, but learn very little apart from the behaviour and idiosyncrasies with which Hoffman imbues Bachmann. He makes the character human; existing independently in the imagination, constructing the reality from the artifice of the words on the page. John le Carré has spoken previously of his great admiration for Hoffman and how he could think of no better non-British actor to play the one and only George Smiley; a fantastic compliment for a writer to state he would trust an actor with their most successful character and lasting legacy. As epitaphs go, despite the CGI completed Hunger Games cameo to come, the desperate image of a failed Bachmann, walking alone towards the red traffic light of a lonely real world will be our final frame of Philip Seymour Hoffman.