Four Lions – “Fuck Mini Babybel”

Four Lions screengrab 01Chris Morris makes his directorial debut with Four Lions, a film satirising homegrown British terrorists (and, to a lesser extent, British anti-terror efforts). It’s been eagerly awaited since its announcement several years ago, particularly by fans of Morris’s work in television and radio. Has it been worth that wait?

On one level… yes. It’s a consistently funny, clever and well-paced film. It lampoons the broken individuals that make up the tiny terror cell its story follows at the same time as making them, for the most part,¬†sympathetic. Omar and Waj are close friends and have been, we assume, for most of their lives. Omar is something of a firebrand and is the leader of the group as he’s brighter than the rest of them – though not by much. Waj is a dim bloke who rarely seems to entirely grasp the severity and reality of the situations he finds himself in. Then there is Faisal, who by all accounts is a simpleton who tags along through not belonging anywhere else, and Hassan, the cell’s most recent convert who seems torn between youth culture and protest. Finally, there is Barry, a convert to Islam who appears to be angry about absolutely everything and confused about almost as much. In essence, they are a band of bullies and idiots, and the film is a catalogue of their failures leading up to an attempt to outdo the infamous London 7/7 bombings.

There are some excellently judged scenes, such as one in which family man Omar finds himself dispirited about the cell and on the verge of giving up. He’s offended his friends and driven them away from him and is depressed as a result. He wonders aloud to his wife whether it’s worth blowing himself up at all; his wife hugs him and tells him that she has faith in him. Then their son appears to offer further support. It’s a scene common to any number of films in which the protagonist is built back up after a setback, except that this time the wife and son are encouraging the hero father to strap explosives to himself and kill scores of strangers for nebulous reasons. It’s a brilliantly dark subversion.

Four Lions screengrab 02On another level… the film is disappointing. Satire functions best when it illustrates core truths about its subject. Certainly Four Lions does a good job of presenting the essential humanity of several of its characters, which is an achievement given common and media perceptions about what motivates Jihadis and suicide bombers. However, it also ducks this central issue by failing to illustrate just what it is that has radicalised the young men who decide to form a terror cell. Occasional rants offer hints but they’re vague and obvious; at one point, Omar reels off a list of some of the most frivolous and shallow aspects of British consumer and pop culture. The punchline to this, delivered offscreen, is “fuck Mini Babybel”. It’s funny not only because it’s daft, it’s funny because its daftness meshes with everything else that has just been reeled off and deflates the anger underpinning the rant. While this is a great joke, it undermines one of the film’s few attempts to articulate the motivations of its protagonists.

At other times, reference is made to the illegal wars and occupations the British government has embroiled itself in. Again, specific details never emerge. It’s indisputable that these barbarous military actions drive domestic resentment, but the more significant question is what produces the movement from resentment to radicalism. Omar and the others also rant about “kafir bastards” (i.e. unbelievers), but where we’re shown examples none of them seem to have much trouble getting along with the people they live and work alongside.

Four Lions screengrab 03There’s a curious scene partway through the film where Omar’s brother visits to attempt to dissuade him from his course of martyrdom. At this point we learn that Omar’s brother is a very traditional Muslim who refuses to be in the same room as a woman, abhors violence of all kinds including play violence with water pistols, wears traditional garb and so forth. Omar proceeds to mock him for his attitudes towards women and lack of a sense of fun, driving him out of the house. It’s a curious irony that the more liberal and relaxed Muslim is the one who is choosing the path of terrorist violence, and it’s a dynamic that’s under-explored – although it does function as a setup to a few very darkly comic moments towards the end of the film, moments that are faintly amusing but simultaneously terrifying because they are so grounded in reality.

Essentially, Four Lions has chosen to be a black comedy about terrorists, rather than a black comedy about terrorism; it sets its satirical sights on the symptom rather than the cause. It takes aim at stupidity, and stupidity is everywhere – but it conclusion is one of futility.¬†It’s a strong and sympathetic film and is regularly laugh out loud funny, and on these terms it’s a brilliant success – but I can’t help wishing it had aimed just a little bit higher.

2 Responses to “Four Lions – “Fuck Mini Babybel””
  1. Toby says:

    Great review! I too had high hopes for this movie, and was kinda disappointed that it didn’t delve into the topics you mentioned deep enough. Still, I’m glad that there are people who are willing to poke fun at serious topics like terrorism.

  2. Shaun CG says:

    Thanks Toby! Yes, despite not delivering in a few areas I think it’s both a bold and a fine film.