British director Shan Khan debuts with an exploitative but absorbing thriller on the topical subject of Muslim honor killing.
Earnest issue drama and pulpy B-thriller mechanics make awkward but not uncompelling bedfellows in “Honour,” a debut feature from BAFTA-nominated writer-director Shan Khan that exploits the perceived rise of Islamic “honor killings” in the U.K. to luridly tense ends. Identifying a social disease without delving terribly far into its warped psychology, Khan’s tricksily structured film has been positioned as a tough-guy starring vehicle for Paddy Considine — watchable as ever, if oddly cast as a bounty hunter hired by a conservative Muslim family to execute their nonconformist daughter. That may not seem the most sensitive way of bringing a horrifying feminist crisis to light, but sincere anger, plus excellent work from Aiysha Hart as Considine’s prey, burn through some of the contrivances. Following a quiet domestic release in the spring, “Honour” opens today on multiple platforms Stateside.
If “Honour” is remembered at all beyond 2014, it’ll probably be as the lesser of the year’s two honor-killing dramas from British freshman helmers. One month after Khan’s film entered U.K. theaters, Daniel Wolfe’s more aesthetically ambitious “Catch Me Daddy” made waves at the Cannes Film Festival, employing fewer ripped-from-the-headlines tactics to more vivid and upsetting effect. Nevertheless, the arrival of both films in such quick succession speaks to the alarming prevalence of the phenomenon in a multicultural society: Thousands of honor-based crimes, usually involving young women abused or murdered by family members for breaking caste or religious protocol, are reported in Britain every year. Both films, meanwhile, pick up on a darkly ironic lapse in the culturally exclusionary motivations behind such crimes, with white contract killers hired by Muslim families to do the dirty work.
Khan’s script manipulates chronology — chiefly via a series of staggered flashbacks — to mask the precise details of who is after whom, though the setup that eventually emerges is a simple one. Still living at home in London, twentysomething estate agent Mona (Hart, improving substantially on her film debut in Tobe Hooper’s “Djinn” last year) is bright, pretty and more culturally integrated than her recently widowed mother (Harvey Virdi) and older brother, Kasim (Faraz Ayub), a violent reactionary cop. Both are aggrieved when Mona begins dating Punjabi colleague Tanvir (Nikesh Patel), rejecting her mother’s plans for an arranged marriage.
With the domestic conflict having become untenable, Mona resolves to run away with Tanvir, prompting her family to plot an in-house execution. When Mona narrowly escapes with her life — in an improbable but briskly atmospheric woodland setpiece — Mommie Dearest decides to call in the professionals. Considine thus enters the scene nearly half an hour into proceedings, with his nameless character afforded little introduction or explanation: Telltale tattoos inform us that he’s a former white supremacist and National Front member, though the redemptive arc cued up by this detail feels incomplete.
Similarly interesting but underdeveloped is the thematic juxtaposition of interracial and intra-racial prejudice — among the many subtleties that go out the window as the film ramps up into nasty revenge-thriller territory. Considine’s ever-interesting physical mannerisms (and splendid lard-dipped pompadour) marginally distinguish a generic hardman type who otherwise skates perilously close to Danny Dyer territory; Mona’s mother and brother, meanwhile, devolve into such Gorgon-esque villains by the film’s close that even a notional understanding of their unconscionable actions is quite impossible. Resilient but not invulnerable, Hart may have the film’s cards stacked entirely in her favor to begin with, but still registers as its most nuanced, human presence.
Whatever the narrative and ideological shortcomings of Khan’s film, it mostly delivers on genre terms. Editor Beverley Mills, in particular, deserves commendation for maintaining a crisp pace without losing coherence amid the restless chronological back-and-forth; other tech credits, including David Higgs’ brown-filtered lensing, are more televisually proficient.