Four Lions (2010)

15 Sep

If you’d witnessed the media furor surrounding ‘Four Lions’ and were sufficiently credulous, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the film is an exercise in bad taste akin to Pasolini’s ‘120 Days of Sodom’. In reality, the opprobrium heaped on the film came from those sections of the media that have had it in for Morris since his infamous ‘Brass Eye Special’ and were going to condemn it as a matter of course. Ironically, they did significantly less fact checking than Morris chose to in preparation for the film before writing their histrionic headlines.

‘Four Lions’ tells the story of a group of Muslim men in a Northern English town whose disenchantment fuels violent dreams of Jihad, but whose romantic notions of Holy War are disabused in a series of hopelessly botched plots and misadventures. Omar (Riz Ahmed) and Waj (Kayvan Novak) travel to Pakistan to prepare for the imminent Clash of Civilizations, much to the consternation of Barry (Nigel Lindsay) who, left to his own devices, hatches his own schemes and recruits wannabe rapper Hassan (Arsher Ali) to their ‘cell’. Meanwhile, Fessel (Adheel Akhtar) stockpiles peroxide in the garage of the house he shares with his unhinged father. It transpires that it was all bought from the same shop, but Fessel used a variety of ‘voices’ and ‘disguises’ to protect his identity. Fessel refuses to blow himself up, as it would upset his father, but instead trains crows strapped with explosives to fly at selected targets. With their training excursion to Pakistan ending calamitously, Omar and Waj return to the UK to put their most ambitious plan into action; to attack the London marathon.

‘Four Lions’ features a host of credible, understated performances from an able ensemble cast. Nigel Lindsay is spectacular as the truculent recent convert whose belligerence belies his piety. Riz Ahmed is the heart of the film, embodying the forces pulling young Muslims in opposing directions, the dichotomy of a generation born into Western liberalism but confronted by a burgeoning militancy in their midst. Kayvan Novak and Adheel Akhtar provide much of levity; their characters are not required to be much more than dim-witted and deluded, but they invest their roles with enough tragedy to prevent them from slipping into caricature.

Aesthetically, the film has a downbeat, unvarnished quality to it, mirroring the grimness of the characters’ surroundings, but also serving to ground them in reality and not allow the viewer to take what they see too lightly by piling on the usual facile trappings of the film comedy.

Nobody can claim that ‘Four Lions’ isn’t meticulously researched; Morris spent three years travelling across Britain, interviewing Imams, experts and ordinary Muslims to fully understand the subject he was about to tackle. Morris’s commitment to neutrality and authenticity is evident throughout; neither setting out to portray the central characters as helpless victims or a monolithic bunch of shrieking fanatics.

This approach is typified by the portrayal of Omar’s brother, who considers himself a moderate and decries violence, yet follows many of the less progressive edicts of Islam pertaining to the treatment of women. This refusal to either lionize or condemn, to coldly observe what transpires; adds extra resonance to the humour and makes the final moments all the more potent. By giving the lead characters an inner life and a diversity of reasons for acting as they do, Morris turns something that could have been crass and exploitative – Carry on Caliphate, if you will – into a thoughtful, uproarious and strangely touching take on the absurdities of faith and friendship.

Morris has made a career of going where other comedians fear to tread, an agent provocateur incurring the wrath of our ‘moral guardians’ for holding a mirror up to their hubris and hypocrisy. His latest offering is so special because it takes a difficult subject and broadens our understanding of it without ever becoming didactic.

In the same way that Morris’s ‘Brass Eye’ special wasn’t ‘making fun of paedophilia’, but was in fact a clever dissection of media hysteria and political opportunism, ‘Four Lions’ is more about provincial malaise than suicide bombers. It succeeds where so many ‘serious’ films about terrorism have failed because it understands its subject and has a firm grasp of what it wants to say about them, getting under the skin of people who hold such abhorrent views to such an extent that it goes a long way to demystifying them.

Not sure where Morris is here.

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