The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010, USA)

It ought to come as little surprise that The Social Network opens with a bad date which culminates in the ending of a relationship, since the protagonists in David Fincher’s films seldom seem to be having a good time in the amour stakes. If they are not recently divorced (Nicholas Van Orton in The Game, Panic Room‘s Meg Altman) then their marital relationships are showing signs of undergoing severe strain (David Mills in Seven, Robert Graysmith in Zodiac); if they are indeed ‘getting some’ at all then they are either not cognizant of the fact (Fight Club‘s unnamed protagonist), fatally unable to complete their Oedipal trajectory by dint of ageing backwards (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) or, most unfortunately of all, subject to impregnation by a xenomorphic alien creature (Alien 3).

It is worth focusing on the opening scene for a number of reasons. Firstly, it illustrates how surprisingly well the combination of writer and director – both distinctive artistic voices in their own right – are well matched here and enhance each others’ strong suits rather than compromise them. The Aaron Sorkin-penned brashly-inarticulate dialogue sits perfectly with David Fincher’s famously frenetic visual style, though the real standout in this first scene is perhaps the rapid cross-cutting of co-editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, a breathless velocity which sets the pace for what will become a whirlwind trip through the time between Facebook’s inception and its rapid spread across the globe.

The second function of the scene is succinctly to introduce us to the character of Mark Zuckerberg. What we can immediately glean is that he is a spiteful, sharp-tongued yet socially awkward high-achiever whose apparent main concern is not the enjoyment of life and study on the campuses at Harvard, but a zealous desire to gain entry into the freemason-like social sphere of its final clubs which he believes will be the making of him. If this is more than enough for his appalled girlfriend Erica to call time on their relationship and seize the opportunity to jump ship, the scene for the viewer foregrounds the question of the film’s main character’s curious motivations, which in two flash-forward time frames will be repeatedly called into question.

This initial scene also facilitates the first plot point: the drunken, spurned Zuckerberg is spurred into setting up the ‘Facemash’ website which will quickly gain him enough notoriety to bring him to the attention of the blue-blooded Winklevoss twins, whose proposed Ivy League dating site plants the seed for the idea which he will make his own. But so too does it confirm the film’s existence as a work of fiction, given that the date we are witness to could never have occurred in reality since the character of Erica has no real-life counterpart. If the factual accuracy of The Accidental Billionaires – Ben Mezrich’s book upon which the film’s screenplay is based – is questionable then evidently so must be Fincher and Sorkin’s account.

This is no sleight against the film. If the prospect of a narrative based around two injunctions brought against the maker of a website hardly sounds enticing, then the fictive world which is rendered is anything but. As Zuckerberg drunkenly codes his initial site, the film cuts between him and scenes of final club sophomores partying with local nubiles specially shipped-in for their entertainment, the scene more closely resembling the glossy abandon of an alcohol advertisement than anything approaching reality. The worlds of Fincher’s films often have a sense of the unreal about them, and that this time his story does not centre on serial killers, paranoiacs or sado-masochistic basement brawlers does not mean that it has any greater degree of fidelity to the real world.

In many ways, The Social Network is an interesting companion-piece to the director’s previous works, most obviously Zodiac, another film ostensibly based on ‘facts’ but introducing a large degree of conjecture about events which may remain unknowable. But that film functioned in a different time, one in which information dissemination was slowed by technology – the scene where the police admit not to having a fax machine springs most readily to mind – and time passed laboriously with no progress. By contrast, The Social Network plays out in an age of instantaneous worldwide communication and global viral memes. If the protagonist of Fight Club is astonished to discover how quickly his titular phenomenon has spread, it comes as little surprise to Zuckerberg.

That the film’s events take place in the very-recent world of near-instantaneous communications technology is what lends the film its feeling of suspense, and the sense that the events taking place are metonymic of the zeitgeist is underlined by the key difference between the ‘mirror identical’ Winklevoss twins (other than their handedness): their attitude towards pursuing the individual who they feel has stolen their idea. While Tyler Winklevoss is keen to be seen to behave according to the more old-fashioned, gentlemanly mores of Harvard social convention, Cameron Winklevoss seems to be more aware of the fact that the more time they allow Zuckerberg’s TheFacebook to gain the ascendancy, the further they set back their chances of pursuing him for theft.

Zuckerberg’s eventual ‘triumph’ over the Winklevoss twins in getting his Thefacebook out first and into social network hegemony is representative of a strange changing of the guard; the blue-blood Ivy League social groups which he so wanted to penetrate at the start of the film no-longer have relevance for him, as he moves his operation first to universities across the globe, and then to millions of public users. Facebook expands out from the cloistered intelligentsia to the wider proletariat, representing a triumph of bourgeois-capitalism over an antiquated quasi-feudal oligarchy. Ironically, the most humiliating evidence of the twins’ defeat comes at alongside a more literal defeat at that most bourgeois of occasions, the Henley Royal Regatta.

If The Social Network is about a character driven by his inability either to enter into the societal circles he wishes to inhabit or hold down a relationship, then it is not for long a sexless world which he and his co-founder Eduardo Saverin inhabit. Indeed, a key plot point is Zuckerberg adding the crucial element to Thefacebook: the ‘relationship status’ section. As membership of their site spreads across campus, so too does their own fame, and the former losers become unlikely lotharios. The real seduction, though, occurs later on when Zuckerberg meets Sean Parker, the Napster co-founder whose suave charm lures him away from Saverin and the stuffiness of New England academia and out to the more laidback, pseudo-bohemian lifestyle of California’s Silicon Valley. It feels analogous to similar events in Annie Hall, Parker very much the Tony-Lacey-like underhand villain, and Saverin’s evident distaste for West Coast hedonism the equal of Alvy Singer’s.

The film defies easy categorization. The pacing suggests a kind of thriller, though the subject matter makes this seem absurd. As a character study it is hardly a tragedy, nor is Zuckerberg’s story anywhere near a clear-cut one of rags-to-riches or of triumph against adversity. At its best it is actually closest to farce – the seriousness of the settings of the deposition hearings hilariously bearing witness to the petty squabbling and juvenile prankery of young adults – even to the point where a lawyer threatens to use one character’s supposed treatment of a live chicken to blacken his character. If Zuckerberg and Saverin are largely played straight, it is the exaggerated, cartoonish secondary characters which linger in the memory longest – the pathetic seriousness brought to the Winklevoss twins by Armie Hammer, and Justin Timberlake’s irresistibly debonair Sean Parker.

Ultimately, the sheer surface excitement of the story disguises the complexities of the film underneath; its three time-frames – the linear narrative of the main story and the two separate deposition hearings seen in flashforward – fit together so cohesively that their temporal relationship to each other is never muddied. What, though, is the message we are to take from the film? The deliberately deadpan ending makes clear that, in spite of his financial success and popular fame, Mark Zuckerberg has alienated himself from those who sought to get close to him, and even from this experience he has ultimately learned nothing. His response? Look up an old flame and click ‘add as friend’. What we do know is that he’ll be in for a long wait.

Madeo [Mother] (Bong Joon-ho, 2009, South Korea)

Kim Hye-ja in Bong Joon-ho's "Mother"

The exploration of the sometimes mysterious bond between a mother and her child is the kind of theme one might well expect to be best suited to straightforward melodrama but, ever the meddler with genre, Bong Joon-ho has crafted an engrossing detective-story thriller around the subject, a film which constantly defies the viewer’s expectations and offers both a moving portrayal of the power of the familial bond and a dark portrait of this link when pushed to its extremes. As well as being a play with familiar generic tropes, so too is his film a meditation on the importance of memory, set against the backdrop of a wider critique of male domination and female peripheralization in Korean society.

What characterized Bong’s previous two films, Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host (2006), was an obviously withering contempt for the patriarchal authorities contemporary to the periods in which they were set. In the former film, based on a real-life series of incidents in the late 1980s, a bungling police investigative team fail to catch a serial killer, while in the latter, the present-day residents of Seoul find themselves at the mercy of both their own paranoid government and the decidedly more gung-ho US authorities in the wake of an attack on the city by a gargantuan monster. In both films, it is the ordinary people who are made to suffer because of, or be scapegoats for, their public officials’ inadequacies.

Mother apparently continues this thematic concern by focusing on an unnamed mother’s struggle to clear her son Do-joon’s name after he is, she firmly believes, wrongly incarcerated and made an easy scapegoat for the brutal murder of a young schoolgirl. In trying to prove his innocence we see her comes up against over-worked detectives, violent police interrogators and – worst of all – her well-paid lawyer who turns out to be more concerned with scoffing buffets and drunkenly cavorting with escorts rather than helping her champion her son’s case.

The film is almost exclusively viewed from the point of view of Do-joon’s mother, and we are quickly inclined to feel sympathy for her when, in film’s first scene after the opening titles, we witness her cutting her finger with a large slicing machine while she is paying more attention to her son’s safety than her own. When Do-joon is hit by a passing car, the aggressive Jin-tae leads him to seek revenge on the driver at the local golf course, where we learn that Do-joon is mentally slow, forgetful and easily led by his more impulsive friend. Indeed, we see that while Jin-tae is capable of sporadic acts of violence, his meek friend is unable even to kick a car’s wing mirror without coming off the worst in the act.

Do-joon’s mother is, as any parent would be, concerned that her good-natured son continues to keep company with this ‘bad seed’, but their maternal relationship also seems at best off-kilter, and at worst positively unhealthy: though he is 27 years old, she still over-dotes on him as if he were an infant, and the virginal son still sleeps in his mother’s bed at night. In one tragi-comic scene she even feeds him ‘medicine’ while he stands in the street relieving himself against a wall; after he rushes off she tries to tidy up after him, scraping the urine away with her foot, and covering the spot with a nearby piece of metal.

The odd dynamic between mother and son seems strange but at this stage somewhat benign and as if it is being played for laughs, and when the harmless but distinctly un-savvy Do-joon gets hauled in by the police and roughed up by their interrogator in order to sign a confession, we naturally side with the mother in protesting his innocence, as well as suspecting Jin-Tae’s possible guilt. It is here that Mother shifts into a familiar detective-story mode, with the titular protagonist seeking clues to uncover the identity of the real killer, motivated both by her love (however strange) for her son and the apparent inability or unwillingness of the official channels of law enforcement to look beyond the circumstantial evidence of the case.

This is how the story appears to want to unfold as it settles down, and there is a sense of a return to his previous films’ concerns with the powerless oppressed struggling in the face of an uncaring bureaucracy. Our identification with the mother and her struggle has been uncomplicated, resting on easily identifiable premises: a vulnerable, elderly woman struggling against uncaring authorities to prove her mild-mannered son innocent and to turn suspicion towards his violent friend. Yet almost as soon as her own investigation begins she appears to come up against a dead end, one which turns at least one of these assumptions on its head. In classic detective-thriller tradition, and with more than a little hint of Twin Peaks, her sleuthing leads her to make some startling discoveries about her small town and she becomes embroiled in a much more sinister and potentially dangerous situation than she first had anticipated.

Mother‘s convoluted narrative about-turns not only maintain an admirable air of suspense for its 130 minute running time, but serve to undermine many of the assumptions and prejudices the viewer holds about the story and its characters. If Memories of Murder played on the tropes of the police procedural genre and The Host similarly toyed with the familiar mores of the family-drama-amidst-monster-attack movie, the film uses the setup of a detective-story to expose how the viewer becomes emotionally complicit with the depths of its main character’s moral elasticity without even realizing it – until, that is, it is too late. The beating heart of Bong’s film is a dark, twisted one which, as well as showing how familial bonds can be an empowering, all-conquering force for good, they are the same ones which can drive people to go too far. Nevertheless, lead actress Kim Hye-ja, familiar to Korean audiences for playing more placid matriarchs, conjures up a mesmerizing central performance as a quiet, subservient elderly mother steeled by her resolve to free her son, and it is hard not to be swept along by this woman’s sheer determination.

The film’s feminine title underlines the fact that there is a large focus on the cultural and social divide between the genders, and though the subject of female subjugation is not broached explicitly, it is one which is ever-present in the background. If men are not alternately portrayed as bullying, incompetent, pathetic, money-grabbing, self-serving, violent, whimsical or sexually rapacious creatures then, as in the case of the fathers of both Do-joon and murdered schoolgirl Moon Ah-jung, they are absent entirely. The question of Do-joon’s father is never raised, and at one stage his mother even suggests to one of her acupuncture clients that it was ‘medicine’ which made her pregnant with her son. By contrast, women are the efficient workers, the gossips who know what is happening in the community, the victims of bullying, taken advantage of sexually, or at the extremes are driven to drink or attempted suicide. The mourners at Moon Ah-jung’s wake are almost exclusively female.

Do-joon’s memory – or lack thereof – serves not merely as a device to initiate and maintain the central mystery plot, but also as a metaphor for his essential unknowability to his mother, regardless of how close their relationship is; to what extent his amnesia is selective by choice or otherwise is never made explicit, which leaves us as much in the dark as she is. One dramatic revelation about their past, however, offers some clue as to its cause, as well as suggesting that one thing he may not be able to remember is something that she chooses advantageously not to remind him of. It also serves to cast in darker hues both her character and her apparently unselfish servitude to him. By the end, we are left to guess the extent to which Do-joon is able to piece together what his mother has done; she, however, makes sure she takes steps never to remember, and the film’s memorable final shot serves as a poignant recapitulation of its equally striking first.

The film’s emotional zenith comes when the mother is called upon to visit JT, an adolescent with Downs’ Syndrome who has been captured after escaping from the sanitorium. She simply asks him if he has any parents, a mother? His negative reply causes her to break down – but is it entirely out of pity for him? Her relationship with her son may have empowered her to go to extraordinary, almost unthinkable lengths to save him, but as much as this moment comes as catharsis it also serves to remind her of the horrors she has witnessed too. All in the journey of a mother, though, one in which the ability to forget may well be as important as that to remember.

Mother is released on DVD on 20 September by Optimum Releasing.

Vincere (Marco Bellocchio, 2009, Italy / France)

In contrast to Francisco Franco, his Spanish counterpart who displayed little interest in the subject, Benito Mussolini never neglected the social importance of cinema; indeed, on opening the world-famous Cinecittà studios in 1937, he stood in front of a massive sign bearing a slogan he had coined himself, “Cinema is the most powerful weapon”. Though, as Peter Bondanella points out, recent archival work has suggested that the actual propaganda content of the films produced during World War Two was minimal, the shadow of the Mussolini name still looms large over the industry’s history: as well as his government’s construction of Cinecittà, his son Vittorio was a noted film critic and heavily involved in establishing the careers of Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. and even the top prize at the Venice Film Festival proudly carried the Mussolini name for the first years of its existence.

The Mussolini years also saw the foundation of the other major pillar of the modern Italian film industry, the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, the important filmmaking school which would one day count one Marco Bellocchio as a graduate. There is, then, a sense of Oedipus-like patricide to Bellocchio’s making of a film which paints Il Duce in such an unflattering light, but then the 70 year-old director has taken dysfunctional families and their internal psychologies as his central interest from his debut film – the intensely savage domestic drama Fists in the Pocket (1965) – onwards, so it ought to be of little surprise that he eventually turn his attention to that most notorious of Italian father figures.

Vincere takes as its main subject not Mussolini himself but Ida Dalser, his first wife and the mother of his first-born son, but who the dictator-to-be expediently came to deny all knowledge of during the course of his political ascent. The film traces two parallel narratives – Ida’s own personal story and the story of Benito’s increasing prominence in political affairs. What may loosely be described as the first half of the film charts Ida and Benito’s chance meeting and eventual romance; the young Mussolini is painted here as a firebrand atheist and left-wing agitator with an immense personal magnetism, with whom the rapt Ida is overwhelmingly enamoured. They marry, and she eventually sells all of her possessions to help him set up his newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia, but it soon emerges that he has married another woman, Rachele, and fathered a daughter with her. Ida is subsequently abandoned and painted as a mad obsessive, prevented from seeing her husband, and eventually incarcerated in a series of psychiatric hospitals for the remainder of her life for protesting the existence of their marriage.

In the film’s first half, Mussolini is a very real presence in Dalser’s life, but as Dalser is placed under police surveillance and eventual imprisonment, what we see of Il Duce is increasingly glimpsed only through newsreels, portraits, and even at a later stage a large bust which his unrecognised son sends crashing to the floor in disgust. From the very personal view of the very passionate man established in the film’s first half, all that is seen of Mussolini in its second half is that famously gurn-like public face, monstrously grimacing and gesticulating wildly in front of baying crowds. It is not just his personality which has changed; a complete political volte-face has seen him change from republican atheist left-wing pacifist into warmongering Fascist in alliance with the King and the Pope.

The film, then, invites the viewer into drawing a parallel between Mussolini’s treatment of Dalser and his chameleonic political transformation, both of which demonstrative of his characteristically Machiavellian ability to recast himself according to expediency. In this sense, it is a continuation of Bellocchio’s best films of the 1960s which posited that dysfunctional personal lives are both the cause and effect of a wider dysfunctional culture; where Vincere differs from those though, as well as placing it apart from Bernardo Bertolucci’s more famous The Conformist (1970), is that instead of offering a psychosexual explanation for the causes of fascism, Bellocchio seems to be presenting Mussolini’s conversion as much more straightforwardly stemming from an overriding, all-consuming ambition.

This simplicity makes for a much more accessible film than one might associate with the director. Dalser’s steadfast refusal to deny that she was ever married to Benito – an admission which would likely see her freed from institutionalisation – paints her as an anti-fascist heroine, refusing to submit to a lie for personal convenience, and Giovanna Mezzogiorno’s powerful central performance makes for a moving portrait of a woman completely unable to understand or accept her husband’s betrayal. Carlo Crivelli’s score, by turns bombastic and pulsating, raises the drama far beyond realism and into the heights of operatic tragedy.

On this plane of melodrama, Vincere functions well, but as political polemic it feels unsatisfactory. The film’s first half feels rushed, necessarily crammed with inserted pieces of newsreel footage illustrating the political situation which gave rise to Mussolini’s ascent, but at the expense of allowing breathing space for the characters to become fully delineated. As such, when Dalser is spurned, the viewer is left as confused as she as to the reasons for her abandonment, and these are never satisfactorily resolved later in the film. This serves the drama, and allies us well to Dalser’s point of view, but offers little in the way of insight into the character who is of real interest in the story, Mussolini himself.

Vincere, then, represents something of a compromise: that the chief interest of the story is absent for most of the film’s duration presents a challenge which it only partially meets up to. Yet there are moments of genuine brilliance: in one comical early scene, the young Mussolini foments a fight between partisan pro-war and anti-war supporters inside a cinema, the calamitous violence onscreen replicated in front of it, both continuing to be scored by an increasingly frantic silent film accompanist at the piano. Later, the grown-up son of Mussolini – played by the same Filippo Timi who portrayed the young Benito Sr – struts around aping the comically grotesque figure he has seen on newsreels of the father he never knew. Both scenes – comic and tragic – point towards the social function of cinema as a reflection of – and shaper of – society, a dual function that Mussolini’s own recognition of gave rise to the birth of modern Italian cinema.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (Werner Herzog, 2009, USA)

Werner Herzog has presided over what might loosely be termed ‘remakes’ before: Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979), his predictably odd re-imagining of F.W. Murnau’s silent classic actually seems to sit quite comfortably in amongst his other classics of the 1970s, and while Rescue Dawn (2007) could hardly be termed a replica of his earlier documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), their similarities do reflect the always fine line between fact and fiction that all of his best films carefully tread. This last point has always struck me as the major value of his work; as such, Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams (1982), for all of its merits, seemed only to be the second best documentary about the making of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982), the first being the film itself and its self-reflexive examination of the director’s relation to his chosen artifice through the proxy of Kinski’s titular character.

If there is reason to be disappointed with his latest film, the mouth-numbingly wordily-titled The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, then it is for an absence of this sense of Herzogian ambiguity between fiction and fact; one might question why this usually picky auteur plumped for making what is a reasonably straightforward thriller in the first place, save for the possibility of working with Nicolas Cage, whose gloriously deranged central performance – bouncing around from scene to scene and from score to score – rivals virtually anything that the Bavarian director’s famously lunatic collaborative partnership with Klaus Kinski committed to celluloid.

That aside, there is very little of note; none of his famous eye for establishing an extreme sense of location, whether through visuals or diegetic sound, surely a waste considering both the architectural specificity and the unparalleled musical tradition of the city of New Orleans. Indeed, as lensed by long-time DP Peter Zeitlinger, the film looks much like a bog-standard cable TV police drama. Neither does there seem to be much in the way of an overarching theme, unlike in Abel Ferrara’s original Bad Lieutenant (1992) which was much more obviously steeped in a strongly Catholic sense of sin, foregiveness and redemption. Herzog himself has said the film is about “the bliss of evil”; the bliss certainly shines through in the film’s sheer enjoyability, but the near-slapstick tone detracts from the idea that its protagonist is genuinely evil, particularly when one remembers just how bad Harvey Keitel was in the earlier film.

As a standard crime drama, the film is hard to fault thanks to a tight and at times highly amusing script from veteran scribe William M. Finkelstein, save for some horribly shoehorned-in clunkiness towards the end about a childhood spoon. As one might expect from a Herzog film, the emphasis is very much placed on just the one central character, putting what is one of Cage’s career-best performances in the full spotlight but at the cost of marginalizing an under-used supporting cast. Eva Mendes has little more to do than Isabelle Adjani did Nosferatu; as if we needed reminding, Herzog’s is worldview is unmistakeably male-centric.

Except maybe it isn’t. Outside of the narrative there are some genuinely odd moments, all seeming to involve animals. Iguanas are filmed in extreme close-up while Johnny Adams sings Release Me on the soundtrack, a camera views the scene of a car crash as if through an alligator’s eyes, a family dog seems to cause characters more trouble than one might suspect, and the film ends with a shot of its main character being dwarfed by a background of sharks swimming in an aquarium tank. What is the relevance? Perhaps, when all is said and done, Herzog cares little for this silly world of cops, drug dealers and hookers; it would seem to be an opinion which shared by these animals, indifferent and largely undisturbed by the petty goings-on of the human world. Maybe this is why Bad Lieutenant feels hardly like Werner Herzog’s film at all; it just is not in the world he is interested in. Regardless, it is an amiable-enough piece of popcorn entertainment and, along with Kick Ass (2010), a welcome reminder of just how much fun Nicolas Cage can be.

Four Lions (Christopher Morris, 2010, UK)

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.