Some films are on really dangerous grounds in terms of content and rely on the judgments of a director and their cast, in order to work. Take Chris Morris’ Four Lions, a dark comedy about suicide bombers. Well this adaptation of Mohsin Hamed’s 2007 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist is not quite as controversial as that but is likewise covering a timely and turbulent topic. This is a film that sets its focus to the roots of fundamentalism and extremism and attempts to question why many turn to it. The Sean Bean led thriller Cleanskin, recently attempted such a thing but unlike that film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist never veers into full on action. In fact, at points, the tone is more akin to Ben Affleck’s Argo than anything else, albeit with far more contemporary issues.
The plot is split between the past and present and centre on Changez (Riz Ahmed). The film constantly shifts between the two plots; one is set in the now, seeing an interview between Changez and US journalist Bobby (Liev Schrieber) in the midst of a kidnapping and the other charts Changez’s rise through wall street and how his life was about to change. The film is not preoccupied with embellishing explosions or gunfights, instead the thrilling aspects almost work themselves in aside the tension of the character’s exchanges and plot’s progression. The finale is a fantastic example; director Mira Nair has not inserted it in for quota-filling effect but has allowed Bobby and Changez’s exchanges to introduce it as the next logical step. This film is very well judged and translated from the source text by Nair. She has made a serious film with weighty issues but has allowed for a variety of feeling.
If there is one problem it is the predictability of Changez’s backstory, the parts of the narrative that occur in the past, while engaging, are not exactly surprising. This film takes a few very expected turns, be it the airport search, the trials and tribulations of Changez’s romance with Erica (Kate Hudson) or the fact that we all know 9/11 is on the horizon. Although that should not effect, too much, the quality overall. This film may indeed present some frowned upon aspects in terms of religion (sex before marriage for instance) but that is in many ways the point. This is an analysis of religion and identity and finding who we are is desperate hours. This film strikes up a fantastic debate about, not who is to blame but why both sides are doing what they do. This is a relevant debate and Nair’s film opens up a brilliant dialogue.
Still, the film is little without its compelling lead, Riz Ahmed may have risen to fame here but with any luck this film will get his name out across the seas too. As Changez he offers a brilliant inner complexity and best of all, manages to work in some comic moments too. Ahmed is excellent and has chemistry with Hudson, who is good as Erica and their relationship highlights cultural clash but why that does not have to lead to extremism. Schrieber is better than he has been in a while as Bobby and Kiefer Sutherland is superb as no holds barred and cutthroat businessman Jim.
This film may not always be easy and there are certainly moments of prejudice and turmoil that many may discuss afterwards. Nair certainly has adapted the material into a thriller but that is appropriate because this taut effort presents such volatile elements for discussion, that any explosions (be they literal or figurative) feel appropriate. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a gripping piece of work that many may repel but it is certainly admirable to see a film trying to explain how modern times came to be, as opposed to exploiting them for popcorn fodder.