Monday, 22 April 2013

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (12A)

And so the curtain falls on the 19th Bradford International Film Festival, and while the city's newspaper didn't seem keen on giving it the coverage it deserved, those who attended even just one film found a great wealth of cinema on offer.

And it was nice, as well, for the bloggers who have covered it (pop along and check out @KieronBarr, @filmintel @m_pattison and @OtleyFilmSoc when you have a moment. No, not yet, read this first. Then go) to be asked to step on to the stage and be thanked by the festival organisers. Strangely, for one not averse to stepping up in front of rooms full of people, I played all modest and stayed in my seat - forgoing the chance to share a small spotlight with one Dr Mark Kermode. On the upside, I won a book...

And, once the plaudits had been handed out, we were introduced to the final film of the festival - and going by the packed Pictureville, a much-anticipated one - The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Now, having only got my paws on a copy of the book this evening (minutes before the lights went down), I'm not up to speed on whether the film is a true or fitting adaptation of the award-winning, best-selling novel, but taken on its own merits the film is striking to say the least.

Essentially, it's the story - told over a cup of tea in a university cafe in Lahore - of one man (Changez, played wonderfully by the excellent Riz Ahmed) and his journey from Pakistan to America and back, set against 9/11 and America's resulting approach to world politics.

But it's much more than that.

It's a film about truth, perception, betrayal, love, image and how we deal with each other as human beings. It questions what you know and what you think you know, and what you think you see.

It's slow paced, but it needs to be as it allows each part of the story to play out naturally - giving the audience time to form opinions before they're quashed (or not, depending on your viewpoint). That's not to say it drags. It may run at around the two-hour mark, and strangely feel longer without that being a negative, but you're never shuffling in your seat. This film keeps you gripped, quietly and gently but oh-so-firmly, right to the end.

And that is all down to Ahmed. As the lead here, the film stands or falls by his performance. It's his story, they are his viewpoints and experiences, and you share each and every painful one along the way, always on his side regardless of the perspective given at any moment.

I'm being a bit vague and ambiguous, but I have to be. With so many people having things to hide, it would be wrong of me to give too much away. If you've read the book (and if you have, I'd love to hear your views on the film), you'll know what I mean when I say people are never what they seem. It's a key facet to the story, and to reveal too much would just spoil the twists and turns.

What I can say is this. 9/11 changed a lot of lives, and not just those who lost loved ones in the tragedy or resulting conflicts. Normal people living normal lives were seen differently, and that is captured brilliantly here as Changez's world is turned upside down while he's away on business in Manila on that fateful day.

And that's one of the things the film - and Ahmed - capture brilliantly. The turmoil and conflict as a once-promising life and career start to fall apart amid doubt, fear and suspicion. Someone always pays a high price if you make assumptions based on appearances...

But it's not just Ahmed who shines here. Liev Schreiber makes you forget Movie43 ever existed with his portrayal of Bobby, the journalist who gets Changez to tell his tale but who also has things he wants to keep hidden. And Kiefer Sutherland proves there's more to him than Jack Bauer with his emotional performance of Ahmed's boss Jim - a man who also appears to have things hidden in his closet.

The only person who didn't ring true for me was, sadly, Kate Hudson. Normally a fan of her work, her attempt at self-obsessed artist Erica - the love of Changez's life - somehow fails to ring true, meaning the emotional bombshells she sets off somehow lack impact. A shame, because it throws the film out of balance when she's around. I still can't put my finger on what the problem was (and it's no short trip home from Bradford, so I've had time) but she seemed somehow hollow.

Granted, with all the characters having something to hide (or do they?), a lack of depth is to be expected. You've got to wait for the full picture to reveal itself, that's what gives this film so much of its tension. But you don't get that from Hudson. She appears two-dimensional the whole way through, to the point that when one particular piece of her past is revealed, you almost shrug, neither bothered nor surprised by the revelation.

And that's a shame when everyone else has brought their A game. There was something bothering me all the way home about The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I know I liked it, but something wasn't sitting right. Something was keeping me from falling in love with this film - and sadly, the conclusion I have come to is it's Ms Hudson's performance.

Which is a shame when there's so much to recommend here.

For a start, it looks fantastic. The contrast between the two worlds of Manhattan and Lahore are captured perfectly, and the tension is slow and creeping, peaking once or twice but never over-playing its hand. And it's scored to perfection. Having seen so many films this year when the composer has decided to instruct you on the required emotional response, it's breathtakingly refreshing to have a film so laden with emotion and emotive scenes scored with such a subtle, deft touch. A fact brought home during the latter stages of the tea room tête-à-tête.

And the structure is near perfect. As we move between periods in time, from Changez's early life in Pakistan, through his Princetown years via his career to the present day, you never feel lost. Director Mira Nair (of Vanity Fair and Monsoon Wedding fame) has a firm hand on the rudder, navigating the time lines like a Gallifreyan native.

This is further underlined by Ahmed. Changez goes through a lot, but in every time period he perfectly captures what his character is going through, every emotion brought to the screen with a perfectly-weighted delivery.

As I've said, I've not read the book, so there may be a section of fans out there who will be horrified by what Nair has done. I'd be amazed if that's the case, but big books come with a core of fans that can be right sods to please.

As a film, however, even with its flaws it's a gripping piece of work. You come away feeling you know what Changez has gone through. You share his pain and anguish, you feel for him when he upsets his father and mother, you want to help when he's arrested, you want to tell Erica to get over herself (but that again might just be Kate Hudson).

It's not a masterpiece, but that's not a crime. It's still a damn fine film.

And Ahmed deserves all the awards that are coming to him.

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