The Reluctant Fundamentalist
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 19th May 2013
You may think we’d be tired of 9/11 stories by now, but this adaptation of the novel by Mohsin Hamid is a worthy addition to the genre. Director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair) combines an earthy realism with the bright lights of a big city in a tale that turns out to be an engaging character study as well as a well-crafted meditation on prejudice.
Changez is a young Pakistani man who wins a scholarship to study at Princeton University. Like many foreigners coming to the West, he has his eye on scaling lofty towers towards achievement of the American dream. Hired as a financial analyst with a top firm, he rises through the ranks under the pupillage of Kiefer Sutherland’s impressed boss, and swiftly adopts a flash New York lifestyle. But when the twin towers suddenly fall, his adopted country turns on him overnight because of his provenance.
British actor Riz Ahmed is in danger of perennial typecasting as a suspected Muslim terrorist, having appeared as such in Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo several years before playing the good-looking daft one from Four Lions.
But here he’s all gravitas, endlessly charismatic but with that rare charm that feels completely captivating without a hint of sleaze. Ahmed is terrifically believable as both the Westernised, capitalist, money-maker with an all-American girlfriend, and as the doting Pakistani son. He proves the film’s main strength, keeping us as much in the dark about his character’s true motivation as is the man interviewing him (a paunchy Liev Schreiber from the Scream movies. I won’t mention his role in Salt because that film doesn’t do him justice).
It’s Ahmed’s spot-on portrayal of restrained outrage that keeps us hooked, while Kate Hudson (turned a serious brunette but still with a twinkle in her eye) does a reasonable turn as the love-struck artist who mishandles the balance of fearing for her own country while dating the purported enemy.
The filmmakers built in a slightly thrilling sub-plot to act as the mechanism by which Changez’s story is told, and this mostly succeeds. Those who have read the book may be frustrated that the film takes many liberties with the original plot, but as a standalone text the movie works well enough to engender engagement and discussion around the grey areas of cultural identification in a post-9/11 context.
The Pakistan scenes look suitably other-worldly compared with NYC, thanks to Nair’s characteristic flair for colour and flamboyance. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, nicely bound together by Ahmed’s performance and solid handling of a curious tale.