There are three movies inside Incendiary struggling to get out. There’s one about the grief of a young mother (Michelle Williams) who loses her husband and beloved 4-year-old son in a terrorist attack on Arsenal stadium in north London. (Americans, imagine if Wrigley Field were attacked.) There’s another about a fading celebrity-hack journalist (Ewan McGregor) who stumbles on the hard-news scoop of his life. And the last tells how the security services must balance the public interest with the need to gather intelligence in the war on terror. Separately, these three strands are interesting, poignant and hold a huge amount of human interest. Together, they make Incendiary one mess of a film.
Williams’ character lives in a north London estate tower block (i.e., public housing apartment building), and the first part of the movie goes to some trouble to proclaim her chav (urban white trash, a particularly nasty new word in British slang) credentials. So from the start, we’re meant to sneer at Williams as working-class scum and pity her bad marriage while at the same time admiring her stay-at-home commitment to her child and her foresight in purchasing her own apartment. We are simultaneously meant to appreciate why a fling with McGregor’s condescending journalist would be a viable alternative to family life with the little boy she clearly worships.
There’s no chance to clarify our feelings once the bomb goes off and the three stories start to overlap; the mess is such they never come together. Director Sharon Maguire, who also wrote the screenplay, has taken a story that could be set nowhere but London and makes its people behave like anything but the English. This most private of cities, which only recently agreed the design for a monument to the people actually killed on July 7th 2005, in this movie sends over 1000 personalised barrage balloons into the skies mere days after the attack takes place. A journalist handling the story of his career reveals his sources to anyone who asks. The boss of a policeman who died on the job sees his death as the ideal opportunity to make a play for his widow. And the voiceover switches from being straightforward character-developing narration by Williams to letters describing her grief, addressed to Osama bin Laden. The chutzpah of this voiceover is really quite something, along the lines of the blurring of boundaries in Under the Bombs; at least Incendiary’s co-opting of genuine grief is only pretend.
Now, despite the mess of the plot, what is onscreen looks absolutely terrific. Judicious use of CGI demonstrates the aftermath of an act of terrorism without being either gruesome or inappropriate. Ben Davis’ photography is among the best I have seen in a British film — which normally prefers to shoot in as muddy and grey a light as possible — and Kave Quinn’s production design makes all the spaces feel authentic to how London is now. However, what’s inexplicable is the mess it makes of London specifics. Arsenal is a north London team, yet Williams’ character is repeatedly referred to as if coming from the East End — imagine how annoying it would be to see Manhattan and Brooklyn confused in a movie about New York. What’s more, they even bodge up local geography; fine for cinematic purposes, but is it really wise to set up another sniper scene in Waterloo station so soon after The Bourne Ultimatum?
But what is the most bothersome about Incendiary is that all the male adult characters have names, while the women and children do not. The only other female character is identified only as a wife. Apparently this was a gimmick in the novel by Chris Cleaves on which this is based, but I can think of no justification for it. The story is so specifically about one woman in the middle of both enormous public catastrophe and private trauma — the incendiary feelings of the title — that it’s beyond comprehension that she does not have a name. Her husband does, his boss does, her one-night stand does, and even the voiceover repeats ‘Osama’ like an incantation.
Maguire’s previous film was Bridget Jones’s Diary — a movie about a specific woman who was a recognizable type, but who had an individual personality, foibles, preferences, and identity within a changing London. She even directed a blond American actress into a flawless portrayal including a difficult accent. Bridget Jones was a specific, clearly defined person and thereby easy for huge numbers of cinemagoers to relate to. Instead of Williams’ heroine being everything to everyone, she is no one at all.. And without a beating heart at the centre of Incendiary, the film simply does not work. I cannot understand how Maguire lost her ability to relate to women as individuals from one film to the next. I only hope she regains it in her next film.
© 2008 Sarah Manvel. All rights reserved.
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