WFTB Score: 14/20
The plot: A group of Sheffield Muslims with shifting allegiances plan to disrupt Britain’s decadent way of life by blowing themselves up at the London marathon. However, even if they can overcome their petty squabbles, and the testing of their bombs, their collective lack of nous makes a successful suicide mission seem a very unlikely prospect.
Fans of comedy enfant terrible Chris Morris have had to rely on their ageing – if still uproariously funny – copies of The Day Today and Brass Eye to keep them satisfied during most of the 21st Century, as the always-elusive Morris was quietly working on a project. Thankfully, the project has turned out not to be a pipe dream but this, his first feature-length film.
Something radical is stirring in Sheffield, the chief stirrer being Omar (Riz Ahmed), a security guard whose mission is to carry out a jihadist act against evil, capitalist Britain even though it has provided him with a job, home and family. Surprisingly, his wife Sophia (the lovely Preeya Kalidas) and young son are fully supportive of Omar’s mission to martyr himself; less surprisingly, so are the colleagues with whom he makes threatening videos in his ‘cell’: confused Waj (Kayvan Novak), ultra-militant Barry (Nigel Lindsay) and Fessal (Adeel Akhtar), the living definition of a ‘zero-watt bulb’. When Omar and Waj are chosen to attend a Pakistani training camp, it raises Barry’s heckles and he recruits young student Hassan (Arsher Ali), a would-be rapper who adores the suicide bomber’s ‘cool’ style but doesn’t necessarily feel the cause in his guts.
Omar and Waj’s trip to Pakistan literally backfires on them, forcing Omar into an uneasy explanation to his son in terms of The Lion King; but they remain faithful to the cause and despite Fessal’s best attempts to draw attention to the group (by impersonating the IRA when buying bleach) they manage to create explosives. But what to bomb? Barry tries to justify bombing a mosque, whilst Omar wants to create mayhem in London, Waj is upset when he argues with his friend, Hassan is more interested in spinning records with dull neighbour Alice (Julia Davis) and Fessal doesn’t mind, as long as he can use crows in the attack. That’s a total of five ‘lions’, and as the very real implications of their plan start to hit home, it’s inevitable that not all of them are going to martyr themselves when, or how, they want.
Before I comment on the substance of the film, I should acknowledge that using Muslim suicide bombers as a subject for comedy is undoubtedly going to be too near the knuckle for some. However, Morris, together with In the Loop writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, can defend the criticism in numerous ways. Firstly, why should any subject be off-limits for film-making? Secondly, these bombers are all clearly idiots, or at the very least deeply misguided; thirdly, the film has been meticulously researched, with many of the terrorists’ actions coming from real events; fourthly, it is balanced, with the help of Omar’s brother, a religious, non-violent Muslim whose beliefs and customs are ridiculed by the unconsciously westernised Omar. And never is there any sense that the film-makers are making light of or excusing real-life atrocities.
Anyway, back to the film. As you might expect, there is a huge amount of filthy-mouthed comedy in Four Lions, from the absurd one-liners explaining the bombers’ justification for their actions (the short cut to martyrdom is supposedly equivalent to jumping the queue at a theme park, Mini Babybels are counted amongst the infidel enemy) to more developed conceits such as the Lion King one or the suicide bombers having a ‘blooper’ reel. Also, there are some inspired, if uncomfortable, moments of physical comedy – animal lovers are particularly likely to be offended. What’s more impressive is that the film searches for and finds subtle nuances in the attitudes of the group and presents them objectively, letting each character develop and gain significant human, even endearing, qualities whilst never leaving the viewer in any doubt that their cause is completely wrong-headed.
Four Lions is careful to show that Muslims are not all of a piece, with Omar’s orthodox brother providing a fascinating contrast as whilst he is entirely peaceful, his ‘different’ appearance unwittingly makes him the target of police raids. Throughout, the film is an equal opportunities satire, with the police and political authorities just as capable of stupidity as the bombers. All of the ‘martyrs’ make an impact, Omar’s willingness to give up his family life competing with Waj’s vulnerability, Barry’s infuriating illogicality and Hassan’s devastating naïveté; but Morris’ unfussy, naturalistic direction never romanticises or makes heroes of the men.
What’s more, even though Four Lions refrains from overtly stating a message, as it moves towards its climax it involves the viewer in the tension by introducing an element of doubt in the gang’s minds, a suspicion that their act is less a blow against Britain than meaningless, misguided self-annihilation. Although the inadvertent catastrophes – and there are many – provide laughs, the film really succeeds because of its human drama and the truth of the interactions between the characters.
Which is not to say that everything works: the discussion between police snipers about the correct classification of a Wookie doesn’t fit in this film, and in general there’s less distinctly Morris-based material than purists might like (the subtitled swearing regrettably calls to mind Richard Curtis fare like Love, Actually). However, as a satire this still has plenty of scabrous stuff to offer: I particularly like Alex McQueen’s politician, late on, explaining that the police ‘…shot the right man, but the wrong man exploded’.
Four Lions is a brave, black comedy which has much more to say about its location than The Full Monty ever did. Whilst it perhaps doesn’t have enough going for it – particularly in the details and mechanics of the plot – to rank amongst classics such as Monty Python’s Life of Brian or This is Spinal Tap (and what is Waj if not an Asian variation on Nigel Tufnel?), there is plenty enough humour, heart and self-revealing commentary in the characters to make the film easily the best British comedy in the last couple of years – not, to be honest, that it had much competition. I only hope that Morris isn’t quiet for as long before a new project comes to light.