Directed and conceived by Chris Morris, and written with Peep Show creators Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, Four Lions follows a group of British-born Muslims planning a series of suicide bombings during the London Marathon. This might not initially strike you as gold for comedy, but anyone familiar with Morris’s work will probably think it’s appropriate.
Morris’s career began in radio, leading him to eventually work with now British comedy luminaries such as Armando Iannucci (Time Trumpet, The Thick of It) and Steve Coogan (I’m Alan Partridge, Saxondale) to create On the Hour, a satirical news program that would become the BBC2 series The Day Today. Morris and company, which grew to include Julia Davis (Nighty Night, Human Remains) and Simon Pegg (Spaced, Sean of the Dead) among others, took the parody news format to its limits with Brasseye. The final episode – a half-hour ‘exposé’ of rampant paedophilia in Britain – earned Morris the dubious honour of being responsible for over 1500 complaints to the BBC (apparently only to be beaten by an episode of Big Brother and a Jerry Springer show, both of which have been targets of his satire). Next came the television version of his old radio show, Jam, an occasionally funny, and often disturbing collection of bleak, absurdist sketches set to an ambient, Aphex Twin-like soundtrack. It was definitely his darkest work to date, attempting to draw comedy from taboos such as infanticide, rape and traumatic psychological ruin. However, despite the controversial nature of his work, it always has a critical edge. His last TV effort, Nathan Barley, saw Morris pointing his parodyfinger at hyper-cynical trendoids living in Camden and their blatantly conformist ideology.
Whether lampooning the idiocy of inner-city fashioncore kids, exposing the inanity of celebrities, or criticising the scaremongering tactics of tabloid journalism, Morris, like any good satirist, takes comedy seriously yet never loses sight of simply being funny.
In his first feature, Morris creates a farce about an Islamic terror cell based in Northern England. Waj (Kayvan Novak), a lovable oaf who thinks of life as a queue for the rubber-dinghy rapids ride at Alton Towers (read: heaven) and is happy he’s got a pass to the front of the line (read: a bomb). Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), the dumbest of the lot, is a master of impersonations, which all uncannily resemble himself. There’s angry Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a convert to radical Islam, who ends up dressed as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle with an explosive vest; he is committed to the idea that blowing himself up in a crowded mosque would be beneficial to his cause. And then Omar (Riz Ahmed), the cell’s ideological centre and the most dangerous of the bunch, since he might actually be smart enough to achieve his goal. Yet, and this is no coincidence, though he is the most dangerous, he’s also incredibly relatable – a family man who offers parabolic re-imaginings of The Lion King to his son that draw from his experiences in a Pakistani training camp, and whose wife, Sophia (Preeya Kalidas), tenderly encourages him to pursue his dreams of glory in moments of doubt.
With this ragtag bunch of dolts, misfits and ‘people (almost) like you and me’, Morris successfully lends the feel-good, caper comedy a politically charged and sinister tone, treading a fine line between the disturbing, the sympathetic and the silly. And it is precisely this control over tone, coupled with the years of research Morris committed to the project, that saves Four Lions from merely exploiting the shock value of its subject matter.
But the mark of a successful comedy is not whether it avoids criticism – it’s whether it’s funny. The gags in Four Lions are good but are certainly not as funny as the majority of Armstrong’s, Bain’s or Morris’s TV work, nor are they as consistent. Morris’s arsenal of non sequiturs, absurd and crass wordplay (now in Urdu), derisive pop culture references and drawn out metaphors that either lose their explanatory mooring or turn back on themselves are all deployed, but they aren’t as sharp as usual. Regardless, along with Iannucci’s In the Loop, Four Lions is still one of this year’s strongest comedies.
(Four Lions premiered in Australia during the Melbourne International Film Festival and now has a limited national release. You can watch the trailer here.)
Andrew David Stapleton is a freelance writer and sometimes philosophy student whose fiction has appeared in Verandah and Voiceworks.