Reviews

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

3

Riz Ahmed is caught in a culture clash

Affleck, Cooper, Jackman, Clooney… wherever you looked at the Oscars this year, you saw an A-list chin sporting some fetching face-fur.

When the Pakistani-born, Princeton-educated Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed) grows a beard in the aftermath of 9/11, though, it instantly makes him dodgy.

Mean looks in bars, strip searches at the airport and subtle denigrations at the Wall Street analyst firm where he had previously been a rising star are just a few of the indignities he has to suffer.

Yet are they enough to make him a terrorist? That’s the question posed in Mira Nair’s (Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair) rich if languorous adap of Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel.

The true nature of Ahmed’s mind-set is a matter of some import to Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), a journalist who suspects he might be involved in a kidnapping.

In a Lahore café in 2010, Changez tells his story. Ambiguous protagonists are enough of a rarity to make Nair’s film intriguing, with each extended flashback revealing more of who Changez is, what he stands for and where his loyalties lie.

Less successful is screenwriter William Wheeler’s determination to squeeze them within the body of a ticking-clock thriller, something that seems more of a distraction than an integral narrative element.

For all Nair’s attempts to introduce urgency – mind games, angry student demonstrations, suggestions of string-pulling operatives lurking in the shadows – it remains lacking throughout.

As a character study, though, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is never less than fascinating, mostly thanks to a terrific performance from Ahmed that exudes intelligence and cool charisma.

Verdict:

Get past the starchy title and you’ll find a compelling tour through noughties history with an admirably international outlook. Be prepared, though: this is a film that takes its time…

Film Details

User Reviews

    • GPaul

      Jun 29th 2013, 15:12

      4

      Coinciding as it has done with the Boston bombings and the shocking murder of Lee Rigby, this film is only too timely. It strikes me as a subtle and thoughtful examination of what is termed radicalisation. Soon after 11 September 2001, Changez Khan gives up his prestigious post as an executive with a New York company specialising in corporate downsizing, so as to return to his homeland in Pakistan and support its people in their struggle. This bald summary would probably suggest that he is radicalised by ‘9/11’. It would be more accurate, though, to say that he was radicalised by entering the corporate culture of the USA. Interviewed as a young graduate, he greatly impresses his future employer, Jim Cross, with his confidence, verging on arrogance, and hunger for success – rather like a candidate in 'The Apprentice'. He subsequently becomes the company’s youngest-ever ‘Associate’. At one point he corrects Jim’s mispronunciation of his name as ‘Changes’ (it should be ‘Changez’, like ‘hang’). This looks very obviously symbolic. As time goes on, the seeds of doubt about his corporate career are sown by a Turkish publisher whose business Jim is planning to destroy. Here, radicalisation springs from a change in consciousness: Jim clearly embodies what Charles A. Reich, in his brilliant but perhaps now sadly forgotten book 'The Greening of America' (1970), defines as ‘Consciousness II’ – that of corporatism and big business. For Changez, as for Reich, this consciousness is essentially false. It might be objected that Jim is a mere stereotype. He is in fact quite well rounded as a character, angrily telling Changez how he has overcome his humble origins. Another possible objection is that when Changez tells Bobby, a CIA operative posing as a journalist, that he has been preaching moderation to his university students in Lahore we have only his word for it. However, none of his attitudes or actions undermines that claim. He is visibly concerned about conditions in Pakistan. The film’s one significant fault, I think, lies in the death of Changez’s friend Sameer. As he has been the only cheerful character, and very charming, this is bound to play upon the audience’s emotions but rather crudely so. Changez’s relationship in New York with Erica, an emotionally scarred artist, is not dramatically very satisfying either. Its significance, I think, is that in different ways they are both outsiders. As a whole, though, I would give the film four clear stars out of five. The acting is powerful and the cinematography makes an impact, especially in bringing out the poignant contrasts in Changez’s world.

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