Thanks to his presence as the lynchpin of the much-lauded television programmes The Day Today (1994) and Brass Eye (1997), the name Chris Morris has become practically synonymous with a particular brand of satire: the lampooning of the mores and excesses of tabloid broadcast news media and the illustration of how both their verbal language and their visual presentation serve to render absurd what little information content is contained within them. Such is these shows’ influence, and the degree to which they are associated with him specifically, that the adjective ‘Chris Morris-esque’ is almost invariably applied to any subsequent programme with a similarly satirical bent.
The expectation that Four Lions (2010), his debut feature film, will follow in this tradition is, however, a misguided one based on the reductive assumption of his status as a kind-of satirical auteur. In fact, the lens through which it is best to examine his career is by seeing it as a series of important collaborations. Significantly, The Day Today, its radio precursor On The Hour (1991) and the later Brass Eye were the product of a largely consistent core writing team: Morris, production whizz-kid Armando Iannucci and co-writers Peter Baynham, Graham Linehan, Arthur Matthews and David Quantick. They were also the programmes in which Morris was not just behind the camera, but in front of it playing the central egotistical anchor, and it is this artificial persona which is as much part of the perception of his work as anything more strictly authorial.
Following this, the surreal and often disturbing late-night oddity Jam (2000) was again a collaboration with Baynham but rather than pastiching the televisual medium, it instead explored a dream-like world with a markedly darker, downbeat tone. His later Nathan Barley (2005) came out of a partnership with writer and columnist Charlie Brooker and was a further move away from outright satire and towards character-based observation. A first foray into something approaching cinema, a short film entitled My Wrongs 8245-8249 and 117 (2002) hinted at a more slapstick approach to comedy than had necessarily been dominant beforehand.
Four Lions is then, despite its obviously political subject matter, an extension of this move away from satire and towards situation-based comedy, reflected in Morris’ choice of collaborative writing team: Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, most familiar as the creators of sitcom Peep Show (2003), as well as contributors to Armando Iannucci’s The Thick Of It (2005) and In The Loop (2009). The former two shows share a commonality in that while ostensibly using ‘realistic’ visual aesthetics – Peep Show is shot exclusively in the first-person, The Thick of It resembles a fly-on-the-wall documentary – the dialogue is written in a heavily-stylized a micro-language that Dashiell Hammett might have done had he been born in the second half of the twentieth century.
The witty dialogue in both shows derives from the internal tensions which arise within a disparate group of individuals thrown together by circumstance, and this proves to be Four Lions’ strong suit too. The characters of the would-be suicide bombers are drawn with broad strokes and, like Peep Show‘s Mark and Jeremy, of little interest in isolation. However, it is in their interactions with each other – their misunderstandings, verbal sparring and exasperation at each others’ stupidity – which raises the most laughs, as does the way that their combined idiocy leads them to conclusions that one idiot alone could not have arrived at single-handedly – one rabble-rousing speech in particular managing to inspire another character to declare their Jihadi ire against a famous brand of wax-covered cheese.
As a knockabout farce, the laughs come thick and fast, and I suspect a less confident filmmaker and writing team would have eased up on the comedy and succumbed to greater concessions towards illustrating the actual physical threat that such a group could cause, even an incompetent one. As it is, our budding Jihadis come over as about as menacing as a Dad’s Army character waving a bayonet but holding it the wrong way around. The wider political point is underlined by the closing montage of mock-CCTV stills, the kind that are shown on news programmes after an actual terrorist attack: far from the anonymous, menacing characters that are impressionistically disseminated in hindsight, the reality that Morris discovered in his research is that they are fallible, comic figures as we all can be on occasion.
If Four Lions succeeds as a comedy, as a film ultimately it feels flawed. The reliance on short, fairly self-contained gag-based routines provides a series of laughs within each individual scene, but because the overall narrative is flimsy and, more often than not, lacking in a clear storytelling direction, all too often each scene feels isolated from the wider story. Since the characters are painted broadly and largely caricatures, there is by-and-large little or no discernible character development, at least until the final scenes, and their very two-dimensional nature removes the reality of the situation to diminish the impact of what political points Morris is trying to make. What pathos is generated is entirely for the character of Omar, the protagonist and most recognizably normal member of the gang, and whose interactions with his wife and young son prove to be the film’s only emotional outlets. It seemed odd to me that his wife Sofia had such an unquestioning attitude towards his plan to widow her, but there are some genuinely touching scenes with his son and his trying to explain to him what he plans to in terms of a badly-judged Lion King metaphor.
Four Lions is, then, a very funny film but one that is let down by some of its own contradictions. Watching this and Cemetery Junction, the Ricky Gervais and Steven Merchant film, in close proximity did make me consider what I would prefer: the former, a flawed but challenging singularity, or the latter, a by-the-book film desperately lacking a soul. In the end, I would rather have more of the first.
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