FILM REVIEW Andrew M Brown Four Lions
15 CERT, 101 MINS
In Four Lions an assortment of Muslim radicals from the north of England plot to blow themselves up at the London Marathon. They’re complete nitwits who use toy guns in their homemade jihadi martyrdom videos and squabble over tactics and aims. In fact, they resemble Alec Guinness’s gang of thieves in The Ladykillers. But they mean to carry out their plan, to turn the white guy into “baked beans”, and their bombs work. This is the jarring sort of comedy which the director Chris Morris is known for, the clash of the deadly serious and the crass.
The script, by Morris together with Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain (who created Peep Show), heightens the farcical elements. But everything else is done straight-faced – the low-key acting, the hand-held camera-work, the seeming spontaneity of the dialogue. You could be watching a fly-on-the-wall documentary, or The Office. And there’s an air of authenticity in the way the conspirators talk, the idioms they use, their jokey banter. Morris, reportedly, has spent years researching jihadists, listening to surveillance tapes and talking to police officers. The plotters’ chit-chat mixes northern English slang (for example: “You wazzock!”) with a smattering of Urdu.
People think suicide bombers who come from the north of England are misfits and drop-outs. And four of the plotters are like that: they are foolish Waj (Kayvan Novak), angry white convert Barry (Nigel Lindsay), bumbling bomb-maker Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) and puerile rapper Hassan (Arsher Ali). But their leader, Omar (Riz Ahmed), seems more sophisticated. For a start, he has a life. He has a job with a security firm and an attractive wife, Sofia (Preeya Kalidas), who works as a nurse. They have a young son. They live in a nice, tidy suburban house. Despite all this, he is deter mined to blow himself up. And, amazingly, Sofia seems to go along with it. It is hard to comprehend. Even their son is involved: we see him eagerly asking Omar questions about jihad. One thing is clear: Omar is not a religious fundamentalist. The film contrasts him with an ultra-pious brother-in-law, who refuses even to enter a room with a woman in it, but who deplores violence. Omar and his wife are social liberals by comparison. No, Omar’s motive is political – a general disgust at the decadence of the West combined with resentment over the treatment of Muslims around the world.
He has a brain, which makes him by far the most dangerous of the bunch. He comes up with the ideas and is capable of following through on them. And he influences the others, especially confused-looking Waj, who admits to being “as thick as fudge”. Omar tells Waj that jihad is like being in the queue for the rides at Alton Towers. “Do you want to be in the queue, or in the rides?” Waj wants to ride in the “rubber dinghy rapids”, and fixes this in his mind as his image of martyrdom.
Nigel Lindsay is brilliantly pompous and idiotic as Barry, a cockney convert to Islam. He’s the most paranoid and brutish of the would-be suicide bombers. The others mock him and won’t let him travel to the training camp in Pakistan because he can’t speak Urdu. He only wants a channel for his apocalyptic rage, and quite possibly some repressed homosexual urges. You feel he could just as easily have joined the BNP. His big idea is to bomb the mosque, so as to “radicalise the moderates” and “fasttrack the end of days”.
The actual bomb-maker, Faisal, is so childishly naive it’s amazing he is capable of building anything, let alone an explosive device. Then we see him strapping a charge to a crow in a field outside the town and detonating it in a cloud of feathers.
The film grows darker as it unfolds. Just as the viewer is getting attached to these confused souls, it becomes clear that they really mean to blow themselves up. The explosions prove shocking and sad in their total pointlessness. The filmmakers mine them for their absurdism. After a bomber carrying explosives accidentally obliterates himself in a field of sheep, Omar asks: “Is he a martyr or is he a ----ing jalfrezi?” Barry, on the other hand, is confident that the death was worth it, and declares: “He disrupted the food supply.” On the television news the headline reads: “Asian Man’s Head Falls Out of Tree.” Four Lions is well worth seeing. Morris creates some laugh-out-loud effects. But there are weaknesses in the whole. For instance, he feels the need to insert a slapstick interlude at a Pakistani training camp, which does not work or add much. And you think he is unflinching in what he shows of suicide bombing but, in fact, he hides the truth of it. He does not show bloodshed and the loss of many innocent lives. These are virtually bloodless explosions, and there’s hardly anyone else standing around. Now, Morris might say: this is just a comedy. But then he does show a policeman shooting an innocent bystander. “It must be the target: I just shot it,” he says, with impressive logic.
The film prompts lots of questions. What is driving these young men? Why would Omar want to abandon his beautiful family? Does he think God wants him to kill himself and other people? What is the point? I suppose Morris does not know the answers, any more than we do.