O ye who believe! Take not into your intimacy those outside your ranks: They will not fail to corrupt you. They only desire your ruin: Rank hatred has already appeared from their mouths: What their hearts conceal is far worse. We have made plain to you the Signs, if ye have wisdom.

– The Qur’an, 3:118

Imagine an overcast day in Hamburg, with shades of navy and greys, and the pending threat of rain. The stench of rotting fish, wood, and steel waft in waves from the harbourfront among the shrieks of mottle-feathered gulls, and the anachronistic clash of neo-Renaissance and modern industrial architecture stare silently on as secrets are whispered, concealed, and divulged around the rain-soaked pavements. It is the ideal setting for a spy story, simultaneously unassuming and fraught with tension. Like pieces on a chessboard, the many players each assume a particular role, cool and composed and set at a deliberate pace as the action unfolds carefully and gradually. In this taut drama, Anton Corbijn’s expert direction guides the viewer’s gaze over the action as it happens, not allowing one to get to close, but to coolly observe from a distance, as lives crumble and the world turns on.

Corbijn is a born director, and his photography background is a testament. He has a mesmerising sense of space and distance, and like his severely underrated work in The American, intuitively understands how to make the innocuous seem suffocating and ominous, as if a character itself. Present-day Hamburg is his omnipresent character, a seemingly unremarkable city that became known for the Hamburg cell, a group of radical Islamists that included individuals who would go on to be key operatives in the 9/11 events. The film is saturated in a cool and moody colour palette of dark greys and blues reflecting off of austere glass windows and metal rooms, with cinematographer Benoît Delhomme invoking his previous work from Breaking and Entering (2006). It is amidst these diffident neighbourhoods and nondescript bars of seedy Hamburg that John le Carré sets his tale. Like his previous Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, le Carré sets his action against a backdrop of historical accuracy – in TTSS, it was the Soviet paranoia of the ’70s; in the present, it is the Islamophobic fallout from 9/11. Spies are not so much peering through long-range lenses or exchanging covert meeting spots, but wrangling with the insipid bureaucracy of modern intelligence spanning continents and shut away in dark rooms willing obscure patterns to emerge. As such, there is a cool cynicism cast over the film, considering the spy game as not merely a chase with a target, but sense of disillusionment over the modern espionage institution amidst the involved parties attempting to score petty political points.

At the centre of the tangled threads is Günther Bachmann, the ringmaster of the covert operation to root out potential Islamic threats in Hamburg. With the failure of intelligence over the 9/11 attacks still looming large, Bachmann is burdened with a particular sense of disenchantment and desperation that fuel his motivations throughout the film. This is perhaps the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman’s finest and most nuanced role to date; his Bachmann is perpetually dishevelled and wan, but brimming with a seething intensity that comes to fruition in the final act. Unlike Gary Oldman’s commiserable and taciturn George Smiley of TTSS,  Hoffman’s understated Bachmann is a dishevelled combination of detached disposition (much like the cool elegance of the Bach he plays) and world-weary frustration, subsisting almost entirely on diet of cigarettes, whiskey and coffee (“black”). Then there is the question of the eponymous ‘man’, presumably Issa Karpov, the half-Chechen, half-Russian Muslim who arrives in Hamburg. Grigoriy Dobrygin plays Karpov with all the wretchedness and frailty of a Dostoevsky protagonist, lost and tortured with a severely fractured sense of identity. However, the film is as much about Bachmann’s identity as it is about Karpov’s. He is a man grappling for purchase in an entirely unfair world, yet determined to make the best of the situation and regain some sense of purpose lost in his previous miscalculation. Trust is a rare commodity in this theatre of intelligence, and the tension in lack of certainty about who is truly trustworthy is sustained throughout the entire film right up until the heart-pounding conclusion. A Most Wanted Man is a patient, immaculately-controlled, and thoughtful meditation on the modern politics of a post-9/11 world, but also the identities of those who were affected in the midst of it. It is a film about secrets – protecting them, using them, and ultimately, forgoing them. Origins of the word “secret” date back to the 14th-century Latin word secernere, which means “to separate, distinguish”; as the film demonstrates, private lives and public lives are increasingly difficult to keep separate, and it is only a matter of time before the two are indistinguishable at all.