FILM REVIEW: Four Lions (2010)

Four Lions (UK, 2010)
Directed by Chris Morris

Starring Riz Ahmed, Kayvan Novak, Nigel Lindsay, Adeel Akhtar

Throughout his career on radio and TV, Chris Morris has proved his calibre not merely as a comedy writer and performer, but as a bristling and savagely intelligent commentator on current affairs. Like Peter Cook at his very best, he combines an urbane demeanour with a ruthlessly acerbic eye, delivering comedy of extraordinary craft and attention to detail. Four Lions, his first venture into feature filmmaking, continues his fantastic run of form, being one of the year's best films and one of the best black comedies of the last two decades.The comparison between Morris and Cook is not mere hyperbole. For all their reputations as rebels, and occasionally uncouth ones, there is a sparkling intelligence running throughout their work, so that even at their weakest they always feel on a different plane to everybody else. From the "good AIDS/ bad AIDS" conversations in Brass Eye to the darker moments of The Day Today, Morris has continually caught audiences between wincing and laughing hysterically, between revelling in the absurdity of life and being openly shaken by reality.But despite this rich pedigree, there is no sense in Four Lions of Morris re-treading old ground, in the tradition of TV performers who translate to the big screen. The only vague character similarity comes in Omar's security guard friend; his opening monologue about marathons and running distances is a distant cousin of Steve Coogan's pool attendant in The Day Today, who insists after an accident that, year after year, "no-one died". Neither is it the case that Four Lions feels televisual; Morris' comedy has never felt constricted by the limits of a given medium, and he makes the transition to cinema pretty effortlessly.Being a British comedy, there are moments in Four Lions which feature or heavily rely on big, broad sight gags. These are the kinds of laughs which populate the trailers, since they are perceived by marketers as bringing in a mainstream audience who do not follow either politics or Morris' career so closely. That's not to say that Morris put them in specifically to sell the film; while they don't reach the heights of the satirical and verbal comedy, they are executed in the best possible way. There is quite a bit of pleasure to be had from watching someone firing a grenade launcher the wrong way, or blowing up crows, or running awkwardly with hydrogen peroxide stashed under their arms.Had the use of such gags been more prolific, you could easily accuse Four Lions of exploiting its subject matter, barely scratching the surface in search of a cheap, mean-spirited laugh. But as the film moves on, all suggestions or hints of Carry on Bombing go out the window, as we grow in our relationship with the characters and view their actions in a more serious or pathos-ridden light.A key indicator of this is the sight of one of the bombers running towards the house with the explosives - he successfully mounts a wall, only to trip over a sheep and explodes before our very eyes. Whereas in previous scenes this would have induced a belly laugh, instead we sit there in shock, not quite believing what we have just seen. Morris has the confidence to keep the boundary between comedy and tragedy completely blurred; he doesn't feel the need to constantly get a laugh if a laugh is not what is needed at a given moment.Four Lions is an unusual comedy insofar as laughter or hilarity is not always the natural reaction which it produces. It sits in the company of Kind Hearts and Coronets or Dr. Strangelove, in which the overwhelming desire to laugh at the absurd or outrageous situations is balanced by an extraordinary sense of sadness or fear towards the characters. The final act of Four Lions, in which the four men decide to bomb the London Marathon, is up there with Charlie Chaplin's work in The Kid, or Buster Keaton at his most melancholic. Rather than lurch between laughing and lecturing, Morris invites us to recognise the sad and pitiful absurdity of what these four men are doing. While the four are all in some way stupid, disorganised and conflicted men, the film does not belittle them; it humanises them, allowing us to weep for their fate while laughing scornfully at the ideas which drove them to said fate.This marriage of tragedy and comedy is indicative of Morris' intentions as a comedian. Despite his uncanny ability to make people laugh, Morris has always had some form of serious intention behind his work, whether it's questioning stereotypes or approaching a controversial subject in a manner which cuts through all the hysteria and hyperbole of modern media. With Four Lions he has created a comedy which generates huge laughs in places while also raising all the difficult questions about the origins of terrorism in Britain, and if and how it can be combatted.The film is particularly strong at showing the impact of jihadist beliefs on the families of those engaged in terrorism. It cuts through all the nonsense of terrorists being portrayed as psychopathic loners, showing Omar (Riz Ahmed) as a family man attempting to reconcile his religious beliefs with his responsibilities as a husband and father. In one poignant moment, he tells his young son a bedtime story, explaining the principles of Islamic jihad in relation to The Lion King. In another equally sad scene, he poses as a hospital porter to get past police and say goodbye to his wife during her shift on reception. He says that he'll "be going now" and she glances back at him, tearful yet loyal to the last.Four Lions also shows the flawed, or at least unsympathetic, position of moderate Muslims, arguing that they are as potentially damaging to the public image of Islam as the suicide bombers. One of Omar's friends adheres very strictly to the teachings of the Qu'ran, to the point where he comes across as distant, arrogant and pious. While Omar does everything with his wife and doesn't force her to cover up, his friend refuses to stand in the same room as a woman; when questioning about keeping women in a cupboard during prayer meetings, he replies: "it was not a cupboard, it was a small room." At this point Omar and his wife respond by chasing him out of their house with water pistols, with Omar's wife declaring sarcastically that she is "out of control". It's a smart and funny way of showing the nuances of Islamic attitudes to women, which have all too often been reduced to simple-minded caricature.This scene leads onto one of the great set-piece gags in Four Lions (although gag is perhaps not the best way to describe it). At one point the four bombers meet at the house and discuss bombing the London Marathon. The camera keeps cutting between their conversations and the police pulling up outside a house, shot in night vision. This editing leads us to think that the bombers are going to be ambushed - only for the police to break into the 'study group' of the moderates, arresting the men and taking the women out of the 'cupboard'. Morris throws us a totally welcome curveball, and offers a memorable pay-off involving a freight container doubling for Egyptian soil and Weetabix being used as a bargaining chip.What makes Four Lions work as a study or satire of fundamentalism is that it doesn't claim to have all the answers for exactly why young people are doing this. Morris spent the best part of six years researching the film, and clearly understands that there isn't a one-size-fits-all answer to any aspect of this phenomenon. The film is concerned as much with exposing the hypocrisy of radical Islam as it is deflating the helpless, squirming responses of MPs and other authority figures. In putting every party, political or otherwise, under the spotlight, Morris is exposing and shaming the tendency to oversimplify the issues for the sake of sound-bites, or the cowardly approach taken by groups and politicians to avoid the issue altogether.Four Lions is a great black comedy which indicates that Chris Morris can be as good a film director as he is when working in TV or radio. It isn't quite perfect, relying a little too often on broad comedy in its first act, and there is the outside possibility that audiences will come away feeling that, in terms of pure laughs, they didn't get their money's worth. Make no mistake, Four Lions is an often hilarious film, but it is more than funny - it hits the rich seam of awkward or edgy comedy which leaves one feeling shaken as well as stirred. In short, it is an all-round triumph from one of Britain's greatest comedy talents.

Rating: Photobucket
Verdict: One of the decade's best


Rodders said...

an utterly brilliant british film, rich in satirical humor whilst calmly balancing the humor with the dark moments. Great review, you really did this film justice

Daniel Mumby said...

Thank you Rodders :)


Great review. You write so well. I certainly need to check this out.

Daniel Mumby said...

Thanks man, you're very kind :)

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