Opening films at festivals are always worth approaching with a little caution. Normally given out-of-competition slots, it’s often a signal that the films have been selected to bring some starry names, and the attention that goes with them, to the red carpet, or to make some kind of mission statement, with the more prestigious pictures being saved up for the main competition. But generally speaking, Venice has had a good run in the last few years for their opening night film: “Atonement,” “Burn After Reading,” “Black Swan” and “The Ides Of March” all picked up varying degrees of praise, with Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Baaria” the only one of late that failed to get much of an international following.
As such, this year’s opener, Mira Nair’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” is an intriguing prospect. The film, an adaptation of the best-selling and acclaimed novel by Mohsin Hamed, had been under the radars of most until its selection, and aside from Kate Hudson, is mostly lacking in the starry names that normally attract attention to a festival. Fans of Nair (whose superb “Monsoon Wedding” won the Golden Lion here in 2001) have been hoping for a return to form after her last film “Amelia,” disappointed. Was the film’s presence in such a prestigious slot a sign that she might have delivered? Unfortunately, despite a very fine central performance from ever-rising British actor Riz Ahmed (“Four Lions,” “Trishna”), not so much.
The plot opens with the kidnapping of an American professor in Lahore, Pakistan, by an Islamic fundamentalist group, who demand a ransom and the release of prisoners in exchange for his freedom. His colleague, Changez Khan (Ahmed) is suspected of involvement with the group, and agrees to sit down with an American journalist (Liev Schreiber) to clear the air, but on the condition that he can tell his whole story. And so Changez begins to relate his journey from son of a poet in Lahore, to Princeton student, to high-flying financial analyst in New York, the chosen protégé of company higher-up Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland), to lover of photographer Erica (Hudson), to incendiary professor and critic of American intervention back home in Lahore.
It’s ambitious stuff, an attempt to cover the changes in the world – both in the U.S. and the Middle East – that have taken place in the last decade, and all the prejudice, suspicion, rage and tragedy that have come with it. And Nair certainly has an impressive scope to play with. In look and feel, the picture resembles a spy film, with globe-trotting locations including Istanbul and the Philippines, and slick handsome photography from her “Monsoon Wedding” collaborator Declan Quinn. Less successful is her attempt to bring a musical feel to proceedings with several songs (on top of a rather anonymous score from Michael Andrews) that, while not exactly song-and-dance numbers, comment directly on the action in a rather heavy-handed way.
Ultimately, heavy-handed is the operative word. The brief moments of nuance – Changez admitting he smiled for a moment when watching the 9/11 attacks at the sheer audacity of the move – suggest the kind of film it might have been, but for the most part Nair is interested in telling, rather than showing, and she’s not telling you anything you didn’t know before. America killed more people in the war on terror than died on 9/11? Yep. Good Muslims in the U.S. were unfairly targeted after the attacks? Indeed they were. If Nair had made the film a decade ago, maybe this would have been more dramatic, but now much of the material feels tired, and the crass, clanging way in which she handles it doesn’t help.
In fact, even the film’s main throughline – Changez’s transformation from capitalist, Westernized financier to controversial academic and campaigner – feels botched. His desire to find a Pakistani dream to match the American dream is one of the more interesting ideas in the film, but it’s never explored, with his return home feeling more like it comes from a broken heart and misgivings about his job than about wider concerns for Pakistan. It’s a shame, both because Nair has covered this kind of material more thoughtfully in the past (including her underrated “The Namesake”), but also because Ahmed is so good in the part. He’s impressed many times in the past, but the actor gets his best showcase to date here, subtly shifting his accent the further he moves from Pakistan, and proving charismatic, ambiguous and truthful in all the right ways.
The rest of the cast don’t fare so well, although it’s not entirely their fault, and some of the better parts are smaller ones including “True Blood” star Nelsan Ellis as Changez’s best friend, Om Puri as his father, and Haluk Bilginer as a Turkish publisher. Schreiber feels disengaged and bored as the journalist, not least because the part is nebulously written. He does at least have more to do than Martin Donovan, who’s entirely wasted as a CIA officer. Kiefer Sutherland feels somewhat miscast as the mentor, but nowhere near as badly as Hudson is as the love interest. In all fairness, it’s a nightmare of a part, an artist (whose art is, as it turns out, is terrible) haunted by the recent death of her boyfriend, and seemingly unable to read basic human feelings and emotion. But Hudson doesn’t really help things, coming across more often than not as unintentionally funny.
But there is stuff that works well in the film. When Nair is on home territory, examining the dynamics of Changez’s family in Lahore, it suddenly comes alive. But it’s too little, too late, and the lack of subtlety with which she’s tackled the rest of the material, William Wheeler’s lacklustre script and the uneven performances mean that the picture ultimately feels like a chore, even despite Ahmed’s excellent turn. [D+]