If it is a fault in storytelling to not hoist your banner to one cause over another, if it’s counterproductive to not arrive at a clear resolution, then Mira Nair’s latest movie is a flawed effort. Her forte lies in teasing out the complexities of family and romantic relationships – see Monsoon Wedding (2001) and the sublime adaptation of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (2004) – so she can be forgiven for at times coming a little unstuck in the mire of a political thriller.
Changez (Riz Ahmed) is a firebrand lecturer at Lahore University. He is believed to be implicated in the kidnapping of Rainier, an American academic – the abduction is riveting – and we meet him in a mujahideen tea-house as he is about to explain his situation to Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiver), a CIA agent.
We then jump back ten years. The son of a renowned poet, Changez has relocated from Pakistan to New York, where he lands a high-flying job with one of the city’s big-money firms. A future of great wealth and prestige seems assured, until 9/11 happens. Watching events on TV as they unfold, a fleeting insight has him appreciate what he sees as the genius of the attack on the WTC. Overnight, his standing in society crumbles. Now regarded as a potentially hostile alien, he is the victim of humiliating racial profiling. He is radicalised and returns to Pakistan.
It is here that Nair is inclined to oversimplify the unforgiving nature of cultures in irreconcilable conflict. The US is greedy and arrogant, the peoples of poorer nations exploited and downtrodden – although, to her credit, she is not afraid to hint at the Islamists’ nurtured self-pity as well as the Americans’ insensitivity. Constantly moving between 2001 and the present day, with time running out in the search for Rainier, Lincoln’s questioning of Changez pushes them towards a climax neither can control. Underpinned by murky fatalism, the final act despairs for the nature of humanity, but this still towers over the mindless blockbusters that surround it.