By Jay Stringer
I saw the film FOUR LIONS tonight. And if you've not seen it yet there is a big film shaped hole in your life.
It's the tale of four (later 5) British Muslims who are seeking to bring Jihad to Sheffield. You could say that each member of the team represents a different group within our society, from the father who indoctrinates his son through fairy tales, the failed and angry student who's really just rebelling against his family and teachers, to the two who are easily led but really just want to blow up crows or go to theme parks. Much of the most overtly harsh commentary, the radical, conspiracy seeking, slogan shouting extremism is given to Barry, a white guy who has converted to the more extreme elements of Islam. That decision provides some comedy and some tension, but also probably saves the director and the film from crossing a line.
They ultimately hatch a plan to suicide-bomb the London Marathon, but the details of the plot itself are really secondary to the characters and the comedy. Yes, comedy, honest. Such as a moment when the police have to learn how to tell a terrorist from everybody else; are a Wookie and a Honey Monster the same thing? Are they both a bear? Is it okay to shoot one and not the other? These are just some of the moral questions on display.
I found it an almost perfect film, something I'm glad i paid to see (fifteen quid for two tickets? Ouch.) The relationships are well observed and first time director (but British comedy legend) Chris Morris manages to find the soul and humanity of the story without ever losing sight of where these people are headed. I'm not really sure i could do the film justice in a full on review, but it has given me a few things I'd like to talk about.
First the comedy. This film is side-splitting, or at least it was to me and the audience i watched it with. And it doesn't pull any punches. How often have we seen films, TV or books that back off? That set something up but choose not to follow through? I've grown increasingly bored with stories that choose to back down, just as i don't seem to have any room left in my life for sit coms that reboot at the start of every episode. For comedy to have effect, real, lasting effect, it has to follow through. Same with drama, same with everything. FOUR LIONS recognises that the situation is as inherently silly as it is unsettling, and it plays both to full effect. We know these people and their foibles, not just as muslims but in all walks of life, so when we see them taking steps that we don't know, following through, it hits home.
I've made a promise to myself that at the first sign of 'wimping out' in a film, TV show or book, I'm going to put it aside and move on to something else. Same goes for my own writing.
The other thing I'm thinking about from the film is sympathy. Now, okay, the great sympathy vs. empathy debate is nothing new to crime fiction discussions. It's been raised at every panel or book signing I've attended, and probably belongs on one of Dave White's lists of blog cliches. I'm firmly in the not-caring-about-sympathy camp as are most writers that i talk to, so I'm not looking to raise it as if its anything new. But when you see it done well, it sets you thinking about it afresh.
The characters in the film, even the most likable and down-to-earth ones, are shown doing 'bad' things. Whether it's strapping a bomb to a bird, aiming a rocket launcher at a plane, telling your son that Simba lied to wage a Jihad, or plotting to blow up a mosque. The film never stops to say "these people are really the victims of a society that has alienated them, please give them a hug before they blow up," and neither does it try and absolve them of any wrong doing. It doesn't give them each a deep motivation or a get out clause.
The film is so well balanced, the story and characters so well told, that we do find time to like them in places, and to at east have some empathy with them in others. Perhaps it helps that there is no real moral compass in the film other than "death is a bit bad, old chap." There are no good guys on show; the police are shown to be just as trigger happy and prone to cock-ups as they people they are combating. The character who tries to talk our protagonists down off the ledge, a patient and kind Muslim, is still shown to be unable to talk directly to a female character.
With this lack of definite right or wrong, an absence of moralising, our own moral compasses reset. Suddenly we are dealing with something that feels real, that could be in our real world, that other place that lacks an overall sense of right and wrong. And again, as with the comedy, that only adds to the story telling. If the world feels like our own, if it feels like reality, then we are a little bit scared, a little bit uncomfortable, but we can also relate to whats on the screen in one way or another.
Now, that's not for everyone. Sometimes you just want to watch a movie or read a book for escapism. You don't want to be hit over the head with reality, or faced with moral uncertainty. Sometimes you just want to know that Indiana Jones is the good guy and he really needs to catch that truck.
But whilst films like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (my favourite) entertain me, films like FOUR LIONS make me want to raise my game.