Director: Mira Nair
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi
Running time: 128 mins
Plot: When an American citizen is taken hostage in Lahore, suspicions turn to Changez, a noted academic who lived in New York during 9/11. He tells a journalist of his life on Wall Street and his disenchantment with The American Dream. All the while, tensions are building outside.
Riz Ahmed is going to be a big star. He’s been ‘one to watch’ for a while now, whether in Michael Winterbottom’s ROAD TO GUANTANAMO (2006) or Chris Morris’ FOUR LIONS (2010), he’s always captivating. In THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST, he gives what will be a career shaping performance, providing one of the finest character studies since De Niro’s Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER (1976).
He plays Changez, a lecturer in Lahore, Pakistan, who may or may not be involved in the kidnapping of an American citizen. Liev Schreiber plays Bobby, a journalist sent to interview Changez about being a supposed militant academic. It is within this framing devise that the dual narratives run; the story of Changez’s life in New York before, during and after 9/11 via flashback and the growing tensions between the students and the CIA controlled police outside in the present. It’s the exact technique used in INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE (1994) and it works beautifully, showing the various events, influences and choices that make Changez the man he is. He does not fall into a basic binary, being a liberal Westerner or an Islamic extremist. Nair never creates simple paths for her characters to take, nor does she give the audience pigeon holes in which to place the them.
In pre-9/11 New York, Changez is an up and coming stock broker under the tutorage of Jim (a bespectacled Kiefer Sutherland) and lives the life of western excess that his poet father (Om Puri) resents. With a high flying job and a creative, beautiful girlfriend (Kate Hudson), things are going well until the attack on the World Trade Centre. This event, Changez’s reaction and subsequent treatment are handled with delicacy, humanity and a clinical nature that is incredibly effective and rather haunting. The sequence where Changez is taken aside at an airport simply for being a bit browner than everyone else is particularly harrowing, and what makes it so is the understated, quiet manner in which it is performed. As he is strip searched and humiliated, both his face and that of the customs officer remain blank, there are no histrionics and it much more emotive for it. The small sounds of clothes being removed and the sight of a complete stranger putting on a rubber glove resonate entirely in a scene with no music and minimal dialogue as we observe this terrible act in all its tiny, realistic terror.
As well as being a powerful drama, THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST is also an extremely tense thriller. As Bobby and Changez verbally duel, a CIA extraction team is trying to track the kidnapped American academic before he is executed. Is Changez involved? Or is he as peaceful as he claims? The conflicted nature of the man not only relates to the opposing cultures that he holds dear, but to whom his loyalties lie in this time of crisis. Ahmed’s performance is believable and captivating and his supporting cast, although fine in their own right, give him the space to provide one of the performances of the year. The second and third acts reveal more twists and turns that will keep you guessing until the final revelation, as Mohsin Hamed’s script (adapted from his own novel along with William Wheeler and Ami Boghani) is tight and clever, giving Nair and her cast the opportunity to challenge audience expectations and deliver a film that is intense, intelligent and important.
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