Posts Tagged ‘Four Lions’

Sometimes you hear about the concept of a movie and instinctively think ‘That’s an appalling idea, it can’t possibly work,’ despite all evidence to the contrary: doing a heart-warming musical romance about the Nazi anschluss, or making a silent film in Academy format nearly a century after the form was made obselete both sound highly dubious undertakings, but the films in question did all right for themselves.

There’s something different about the pitch for Chris Morris’ Four Lions which still causes you to catch your breath: throughout his career as a writer and director, Morris has been a provocateur at least as much as an actual comedian, but the idea of doing a comedy about suicide bombers… it’s like suggesting doing a comedy about cot death or ethnic cleansing; you wonder how they can possibly have even thought of the idea. Still, I suppose that’s why we have words like visionary in the language, to describe people who aren’t afraid to have ideas like that.

This film, the blackest kind of farce imaginable, tells the everyday story of a group of radicalised Muslims living in the north of England. Their leader, Omar (Riz Ahmed), and his friend Waj (Kayvan Novak) go off to Pakistan to attend an al-Qaeda training camp: but this does not go well and they are forced to fly home under something of a cloud. Omar decides to reassert his authority over the group, and assuage some of the uncertainty he himself feels, by planning and executing a suicide bombing attack against a spectacular target in the UK itself.

So, as you can see, it doesn’t sound like a barrel of fun. But this is, barely credibly, an extremely funny film, but also a rigorously intelligent and profoundly humane one. Discussing it with a colleague, he expressed a certain disappointment that the comedy here is not as lacerating as in some of Chris Morris’ other work: but getting the tone right must have been immensely difficult, as simply ridiculing the wannabe terrorists would just be simplistic.

There is a definite element of Dad’s Army in how the group is portrayed – Omar’s personal tragedy is that his followers are all idiots. In addition to Waj, who is just very, very thick, Omar’s group includes Hassan (Arsher Ali), a clueless poseur, Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), whose plan is to train crows to fly into buildings while wearing little exploding waistcoats, and Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a white convert to Islam who, in addition to having some rather peculiar issues of his own, seems somewhat conflicted (his barely-rationalised masterplan involves bombing a mosque). All of these are very funny characters, extremely well written and portrayed, with Lindsay particularly good.

But the wider tragedy of the film, and what makes it so genuinely involving and actually quite affecting, is that Omar himself is not an idiot. The easy pitch is that ‘Four Lions is a comedy about suicide bombers’ – and it is, but it’s also an attempt to figure out why it is that an intelligent young man would be willing to do something like that. Whatever true subversiveness Four Lions possesses lies not in its jokes about suicide bombing per se (there are hardly any) nor in its swipes against the government’s response to terrorism, but in its presentation of Omar not as some frothing jihadi psychopath but a genuinely likeable guy, saddled with a gang of morons. He’s not a comedy caricature or stooge like the other characters, but someone much more plausible.

As a result the humour of some of his scenes only registers intellectually, particularly those where we see him with his wife and son. Both of them fully support him in his plans for violent martyrdom. ‘You were a lot more fun when you were going to blow yourself up,’ says his wife (Preeya Kalidas) when his resolve falters and his mood darkens – but she herself is saying it as a joke. Suicide has become so devalued for these people, such a fact of life – and yet in many ways they seem so normal. In a further brilliant stroke, Morris introduces Omar’s brother, an (on the face of it) much more strictly observant Muslim, who utterly disapproves of what Omar is planning – but Omar comes across as the more likeable and ‘normal’ person by far.

Morris deftly skips between thought-provoking scenes like these and much broader comic material for most of the film, and as a result can get away with some breathtakingly audacious changes of tone: the genuinely moving scene where Omar goes to say goodbye to his wife is followed by one of the film’s most outrageous moments of black comedy, the group singing along to pop songs on the radio while en route to commit a terrorist atrocity.

Obviously I should not say too much about the climax of this film, except to say that – as one would expect – the laughs dry up, and events collapse into chaos and confusion on every level, from the authorities’ response to the attitudes of the bombers themselves. You could perhaps argue that Morris goes too far in his presentation of Omar here, giving him a decency and humanity genuine suicide bombers must be lacking – but the end of the film feels logical and natural, the final bomb detonation and the accompanying suicide not a moment of triumph but one of despair and defeat.

There aren’t many films that seem to get better every time I watch them, but with its incredibly assured handling of its subject matter and its perfectly-judged mixture of farce, tragedy, emotion and thoughtfulness, Four Lions is one of them. If it ultimately fails to get to the heart of its subject – why exactly would someone genuinely decide that blowing themselves up is their best option? – then this is only because such decisions are made somewhere beyond the realm of logic and reason – and to go there is to go beyond not just the limits of comedy, but in some way the limits of humanity itself.

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