Director Anton Corbijn’s sombre spy film is dressed in graffitied concrete, kebab shop neon and cold steel blue.
Into this drab Hamburg setting, Philip Seymour Hoffman fits perfectly. His spymaster Gunther Bachmann has the camouflage of a schlub middle manager – greasy hair, nicotine fingers, whisky breath. He barely speaks above a whisper and rarely shifts beyond an amble. But his mind is sharp and wise.
Gunther is the spy game’s Columbo – always overlooked, always right – and Hoffman is flawless as his reality.
Corbijn, correctly, hangs the camera relentlessly on this haunted man in an otherwise anonymous one-paced, televisual thriller which takes the slow compilation of tiny victories and turns them like a tourniquet.
We are, of course, in classic John Le Carre territory. The espionage game as office politics. Deception as currency.
A half-Chechen, half-Russian husk Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) drags up on the shores of the German port and claims he is heir to a fortune. The Muslim, bearing scars of torture, could be used as bait for bigger, badder fish, think the intelligence services.
Rachel McAdams, Issa’s naive lawyer, might be the lure and Willem Dafoe’s rogue banker could be the reluctant go-between if all goes well.
The plan has to be set up and signed off. This is Gunther’s arena. He is a nudger, a nurdler, a chess player. He knows hard ball and soft sell. He also understands – through bitter experience – a sting operation can sting both parties. Robin Wright’s slick US attache reminds him of that.
Slowly, the deal comes together with Hoffman huffing and puffing at its heart. Is that melancholy? Loneliness? Optimism or its opposite? The clues to the man are there but never shouted.
Patience is needed. Patience from Gunther and patience from the viewer. The viewer will be rewarded. And Gunther? Wait – and wait – and see.