I’ve never heard of Chris Morris before. An IMDB Search tells me that he’s an infamous satirist who first garnered attention and public notoriety nearly ten years ago with a program called Brass Eye.
This year, Morris released a film called Four Lions and if it ever had an official Australian cinematic release, it must have come and gone in a flash. It sounds like a ridiculous and implausible proposition on paper: an ensemble buddy comedy about a group of aspiring British Jihadists who are planning to suicide-bomb a Boots chemist in London.
Somehow, Morris pulls off this tight rope act. I rarely found Four Lions to be laugh out loud funny as the subject matter is so dark, and yet I found I was smirking and enjoyed the film throughout, almost inspite of myself. What Morris does, is take a group of five aspiring terrorists and humanize them. There is the charismatic leader Omar who has a loving wife and child, his gormless best friend Waj, the klutzy Fessel, the eager to please Mal and Barry who I can best describe as the Islamic equivalent of Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski.
Morris talks about researching the film and how he found that a lot of the real life stories of terrorist training camps were so farcial and ridiculous that they translated into comedy surprisingly easily. Certainly in recent times there have been a number of high profile blunders from aspiring terrorists such as the ‘Underwear’ bomber from last Christmas and its from these sort of moments that Four Lions draws its inspiration.
Although the film is primarily an observational comedy about the idiocy of suicide bombers, it does also take some potshots at Islam itself, albeit with a gentler tone. There’s a scene in which Omar and his wife give Omar’s brother Hassan some flack for keeping his wife locked up in a cupboard which he insists is actually a ‘small room’. Omar’s wife delights in getting into pedantic arguements with Hassan. When he declares he can’t enter the room because of her presence, she argues that she is technically in the kitchen and he’s in the lounge: they just happen to live in an apartment with an open floor plan.
The great irony of course is that Omar wants to impose Sharia law on Britain but does not impose the same strictness upon his wife who he treats an equal and has a progressive relationship with.
Given the rather sensitive subject matter, Morris manages to ‘normalise’ Four Lions by giving the main characters familiar archetypes that you see in plenty of other films. You’d be surprised how easily that works. The 40 Year Old Virgin, The Full Monty, The Hangover and other buddy movies may all have wildly differing objectives (get to the wedding, get laid etc.) but what holds the film together is the bonding between the friends and Four Lions is no different.
My favourite character is Barry. He is aggressive and full of bluster, yet underneath the gruff exterior, he just wants to be part of the gang. Some of the film’s best scenes are when Barry fiercely argues an absurd stance that he has selectively chosen from the Qu’ran.
The sting in the tail of Four Lions is in the final act when Morris switches gears and shifts to a darker and nihilistic tone as the boys attempt to enact their plan. Omar is the most interesting, contradictory and frustrating character as he is shown to be a loving husband and a good father so the path he takes into oblivion is the most affecting.
This is definitely one of the most entertaining, unusual and subversive films I’ve seen this year. It doesn’t sound like it should work and yet there it is. It has an 87% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes and at least one religious organisation has called for a boycott of the film. A Life of Brian for the 21st Century?