I’m a little surprised by my choosing Four Lions as my favourite film; as on the surface I wouldn’t have thought that given the reputation of the films I would watch, that a contemporary domestic comedy would be my preferred choice from the thirty or so I watched.
Well, assumptions and reputations can do one: I rated these films by personal enjoyment and I found Four Lions to be a blast – really funny, fantastically funny in fact (rather more so than a film like Le Diable Probalement). Along the way it’s also extremely touching in places, managing to balance tragedy and farce on a tightrope.
Four Lions is a situation comedy about a group of five would-be Islamic suicide bombers, who fumblingly hatch and carry out a terrorist attack. It’s an ensemble piece; with an air of Dad’s Army: their bumbling in attacking day-to-day life isn’t at all different than that of the Warmington-on-Sea platoon in trying to defend it. There are also some similarities with the early Carry On films (only here the redemption is of a markedly different air). We can laugh out loud at the farce: the bazooka being fired the wrong way around, Barry being locked in the car boot, the transporting of the explosives across town by car and foot.
The only competent character is the leader Omar, who is calm and dignified but ultimately has bitten off a lot more than he can happily chew, with the result that most of his time (and gravitas) is spent controlling the egos of his men (in particular the mutual mistrust he has with Barry) through taking charge when they banter and bicker with each other – the dialogue is wonderfully vivid.
The characterisations are excellent: Barry is a belligerent moron (a wonderful realisation by Nigel Stepney of the white working class gone completely potty), Waj a loveable fool, Faisal and Hassan endearingly naive in their differing ways (one is an overgrown child, the other thinks he’s a lot smarter than he actually is).
As splendid as the humor is, the power of the film is in how it handles the subject matter and where it shifts from the farce to tragedy (or from larfs to danger): sharply where Faisal perishes, movingly in the scenes which demonstrate Omar’s absorption of his fate as a martyr into his family life – demonstrated by the understanding of his wife – their parting scene at the hospital reception is heartbreaking.
It’s a film where there its characters contradictions are laid out on the lawn – as a more traditional Muslim, Omar’s brother is much less integrated into society than him, but he is rigidly opposed to his brother’s extremism. Omar himself is an ordinary bloke: his wife is a hospital receptionist; one of his work colleagues on the security desk is running the marathon he plans to bomb. Faisal is confused so much that he conflates jihadi and hip-hop culture. Barry’s plan for going about things is to attack the local mosque. Omar and Waj travel halfway across the world on holiday, but to a jihadi camp in Pakistan (Omar attempts to convince Waj into martyrdom by analogizing it with the rides at Alton Towers).
As a comedy, Four Lions is a triumph. As a dark comedy, it also covers Islamic life in Britain in a dignified manner and its relationship with domestic jihadism. I found the contradictions it passes over to be perhaps the most interesting element: of how all our thoughts and actions don’t have to (and cannot even) cohere with each other.