The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Matt Glasby

The problems of adapting a successful novel, let alone a multilingual near-monologue marbled with anti-American sentiments, are deftly navigated in Mira Nair's latest, which must have been a particularly hard sell. Apparently one writer greeted the project with the words, “You couldn't drag me to see a film with fundamentalist in the title...” Financiers, no doubt, were even less keen.

Based on a script by original novelist Mohsin Hamid, co-producer Ami Boghani, and screenwriter William Wheeler, the result manages to stand on its own two feet, even if the constant shifts of balance make for a busy watch.

The son of a Pakistani poet, and a restless soul, Changez (Riz Ahmed) tells his life story to journalist Bobby Cooper (Liv Schreiber) in a Lahore tea shop, as a kidnap scandal swells around them. At the turn of the Millennium, Changez aced an Ivy League scholarship, joining New York consultancy firm Underwood Sampson under the watchful eye of head honcho Jim (Kiefer Sutherland).

Changez styles himself a “soldier in the economic war”, but really he makes people redundant for a living, something he has a rare aptitude for. Jim recommends him for promotion one fateful day – 11 September, 2001 – but nothing can ever be the same again for a Pakistani man in America, and Changez soon finds himself suspected, then rejected, by his adopted homeland. What Bobby, and the audience, must establish, is whether Changez's plummeting fortunes abroad have turned his head from capitalism to terrorism.

Riz Ahmed as Changez, alongside Kate Hudson.

As a young man looking for a belief system to lose himself in, but finding only lies, Ahmed (Shifty, Four Lions) is outstanding – note how his Subcontinental accent takes on more American inflections the longer he stays in New York –  and he has strong support from Sutherland and Schreiber, even if their characters remain ciphers. More problematic is Kate Hudson as love interest Erica. Her performance is fine, but the role, a photographer mourning her childhood sweetheart, was rewritten extensively for the screen and feels ported in from another movie.

The rest of the time, the film's patchwork plotting works oddly in its favour, making it vibrant, tense and difficult to second-guess: an unusual thriller rather than a politically charged coming-of-age tale. “Looks can be deceiving,” warns Changez – an appropriate summary of a choppy, challenging film that switches genre as often as its characters switch sides.

Follow Matt on Twitter: @mattglasby   

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