Cards on the table first – although I was a big fan of the early work of Chris Morris on UK radio and TV (On The Hour and The Day Today), I haven’t seen much of his later work. I’ve also avoided the whole Sacha Baron-Cohen thing, so I can’t make comparisons. I came to this film with an open mind, fully aware of the interest in it, but not really knowing how the film would pan out. At first, I was wary, keeping stumm when two groups of people in the sparsely occupied auditorium were happily chortling to themselves. Eventually though, I burst out laughing and for the last half hour I could barely contain myself (despite the possibly sobering shocks offered by aspects of the script).
Outline (no spoilers)
Most people in the UK will know the score by now (the film has been very successful on a relatively limited release so far with a £5,000 plus screen average over the first weekend on 115 screens). There are actually five would-be jihadists from Sheffield. The five cover the spectrum from the relatively sane through the delusional and deranged to the completely confused. Bad taste writ large, the plot entertains suicide bombings in various locations/occasions.
I’ve read reviews that suggest that the film is intermittently funny but overall incoherent. I couldn’t disagree more. I found it be thoroughly coherent and brilliantly written (and performed). Morris and his co-writers have several targets and specific aims. Bull’s-eye one is the challenge to show that there are no taboos in comedy. If you can tut-tut at all this film’s scenes and manage not to laugh during the shocking moments, you may have a humour problem.
The comedy comes via an attack on several fronts. The satire on surveillance, security, police hit squads and politicians is perhaps an easy target, but Morris hits it consistently. The idiocies of popular culture, junk food and consumerism get the same treatment (these jihadists communicate via a children’s social networking game and the title refers (I think) to The Lion King). The more contentious targets are of course the extreme conservative elements of Islam in the UK (which are attacked and then the conservatives themselves are treated with some humanity). The five lads are indeed inept, but so are most of the other groups of people. In fact, the only group Morris finds difficult to attack are the real jihadists in Pakistan – and perhaps that is the right approach? The reports of the research Morris undertook point to a belief that in the UK there are more fantasy and inept would-be terrorists than the real thing.
The crunch finally comes with the relationship between Omar (Riz Ahmed) the leader of the five and his wife and son. I’ve seen arguments that suggest that this is the weakest part of the film and also others that suggest that these are the most chilling scenes because they deal with a seemingly rational family that can contemplate martyrdom. I’m not sure. I still think that the film overall hangs together, but any exploration of the ‘real’ psychological study of suicide bombing pushes Morris towards the rather different comedic elements of the Palestinian film Paradise Now. This issue feels like the real heart of the film that we might discuss with students.
The reason everything else works is because, as in all the best films, Morris gives his five characters humanity. These are not crude stereotypes but recognisable lads from South Yorkshire. We know these guys and, daft as they are and utterly misguided, we are on their side. (OK, one’s not from Yorkshire and he’s a dickhead, but we are with the other four.) What this actually means, I’m not sure, but it is a step on from simply demonising Muslim youth in the North of England. I can’t comment on what West Yorkshire Muslims are making of the film, but I’ve heard reports of Muslim audiences who laughed long and hard. I certainly felt better after watching the film – more confident that we (all of us, not the Con-Dems in Whitehall) could sort something out. Putting something like this out so that audiences can engage both their emotions and their brains seems like a good thing.
All the performances are very good and I enjoyed the music. After this film and Shifty, Riz Ahmed has certainly risen to the top of the pile of young male leads in the UK. Researching a little, I’ve learned that a lot of the cast are UK TV stars from programmes that I don’t watch (including Nathan Barley from Chris Morris). That might explain why they work so well together in an ensemble way.