Understandably controversial for its look at homegrown terrorism and the pressures that assail British Muslims in a post-Sept. 11 world, “Britz” features an intriguing parallel narrative structure but meanders too slowly through its second act — finally playing less like a thriller than a heavy-handed political tract. Writer-director Peter Kosminsky gets his point across about the toll of fear on civil liberties, and elicits fine performances from his leads. Ultimately, though, the project proves less satisfying than Showtime’s vaguely similar “Sleeper Cell,” which itself was far from a complete success.
Without giving too much away that could spoil the experience, part one focuses on Sohail (Riz Ahmed), a law student whose anger toward Islamic extremism prompts him to join British intelligence, or MI5, to help identify and infiltrate domestic terror cells. The second part is devoted to his sister Nasima (Manjinder Virk), a medical student who is equally well assimilated (she even angers her family by dating a non-Muslim) but chafes against the suspicion directed at her people due to the government’s repressive policies.
Given lingering bigotry toward Muslims in the West as well as concerns raised by the 2005 train bombings in London, the issues explored here remain raw and timely. Yet while Kosminsky’s overlapping approach to the brother’s and sister’s journeys holds one’s attention with its spare, almost documentary style, it simultaneously evokes frustration and impatience — or at least a sense of “Can we please hurry up and get to the payoff already?” (Consider this a rare case where the content editing done on U.K. imports might actually be preferable to the unexpurgated version sent to critics.)
There’s undeniable power in the pain and confusion of these young characters — torn as they are by the dichotomy between the modern country of their birth and the more stringent aspects of Islamic law. Ultimately, though, the effect feels every bit as preachy as it is provocative, especially when the final shot gives way to a lengthy closing crawl regarding the plight of British Muslims.
In many ways, British TV has been more thoughtful and nuanced in examining the domestic response to terrorism than its U.S. counterpart, including with such laudable U.K. productions as “The Last Enemy,” “The State Within,” “Dirty War” and “Smallpox.” “Britz” certainly falls within that realm in terms of tone and subject matter, but as for execution, it’s a bloody long sit.