Sunday, 8 July 2012

Movie review: Cleanskin, dir Hadi Hajaig (2012)

The movie starts with the heist of a suitcase
containing the explosive Semtex.
Although it's promoted as a spy action thriller this movie uses complex elements drawn from real life. It is also very nuanced and character-driven, which will please some people. And while Sean Bean is very visible on the CD cover in his role as Ewan, the secret agent with the gun, perhaps more important in the movie is Ash, played by Abhin Galeya. Ash is a young law student who becomes radicalised in London and whose trajectory from dissatisfied youth to Muslim activist defines the movie to a significant degree.

Some might look at this mix and yawn, just dreading in their bones watching another worthy docudrama that aims to key into contemporary concerns about Islamic terrorism in a dull and mercenary fashion. But while the London Tube bombings are an ostensible point of reference for this movie, the filmmaking is excellent. And it is fast-paced despite two longish flashbacks that work to chart Ash's progress from the lecture theatre to the wider theatre of covert operations and street action.

There are very good performances in addition to these two actors', as well. Tuppence Middleton plays Kate, Ash's girlfriend for many years. This role is important as it is essential to underscoring the reasons Ash took the route he took. Peter Polycarpou is brilliant as the charming imam Nabil, whose role is central because it is this man who guides Ash into embracing violent jihad. Charlotte Rampling turns up only occasionally but her role as spy baron is important to how the story turns out in the end. There's also Tom Burke as Mark, Ewan's partner in the search for the bombers, who adds a quantity of dry humour to the cast.

The movie starts with an action sequence that results in a suitcase of Semtex being appropriated by Ash and another man. At this point in the drama Ewan is a bodyguard but he's quickly picked up to solve the mystery of who took the explosives by people in the secret service because it is discovered that the Semtex was used in a suicide bombing, that we see, at a London restaurant. The action is quick so you have to pay attention. There's also plenty of action in the flashbacks, during one of which we are introduced to a chilling assassin named Amin who serves to bring some of the wild west swagger of Middle Eastern jihad to the English countryside. For Ash this episode highlights the inner struggle between his English customs and his Islamic faith, a conflict that is also expressed within the scenes he occupies with the pretty and conventional Kate.

Ewan's dour Britishness evokes the 'squadie' of broader renoun. There is a wife somewhere but she's gone now. Ewan is the classic loner of filmic fame and he struggles with partial information as he goes about solving the mystery, as well as with the ugly exigencies of his chosen profession. Killing is a means to the worthy end of protecting his country. But he's also good at it.

Beyond these things there's also the spy agency and its politics, which contrast so strikingly with the messages in the TV clips conveying a lot of the basic information about the attacks that take place during the film to the viewer. The difference between what's said on the TV and what we know of the investigation Ewan leads is replete with ironic overtones. Here's the duplicitous spy agency of movie fame once again, but it's an interesting take on an old drama. There are so many good things about this movie. Even though some of the tropes are fairly recognisable, they're not worn out in this telling.

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