Though it takes a while to decide exactly what it’s about, “My Son the Fanatic” is an engagingly offbeat love story, set against a background of cross-cultural tensions in northern England, that benefits enormously from textured perfs by leads Om Puri and Rachel Griffiths. Pic doesn’t look likely to storm any major B.O. ramparts, but could cut a moderate theatrical career with careful handling and the extra draw of novelist-scripter Hanif Kureishi’s name, before getting wider distribution on the small screen.
Despite its title, the movie is not a heavy-duty drama of Islamic fundamentalism disrupting Asian family ties. That theme is certainly there, though as ironic backdrop to a sensitive portrait of a well-meaning, middle-aged immigrant who finds himself more and more drawn to a white hooker as he becomes progressively estranged from his own family.
Parvez (Puri) is a Pakistani cab driver in a northern town (actually Bradford) who, despite racist taunts by some locals, has an abiding love for his adopted country. His wife, Minoo (Gopi Desai), is quietly supportive, but his son, locally raised Farid (Akbar Kurtha), is starting to question his cultural roots as the teenage hormones kick in.
Working long nights that often have him driving prostie Bettina (Griffiths) and her colleagues around till dawn, the easygoing Parvez just about makes enough to feed his family, while more biz-minded immigrants, like restaurateur Fizzy (Harish Patel), coin it in. Parvez’s world, delicately balanced between his own dreams and the harsher realities of northern working-class life, starts to fissure when Farid first dumps his English g.f. (Sarah Jane Potts) and then starts holding prayer meetings in his bedroom.
Parvez tries to get through to his son but simply ends up drunk and angry, finally agreeing to his home being used as a hotel by a visiting fundamentalist (Bhasker Patel). On the work side, Parvez is exploited for his connections by another visitor, German businessman Schitz (Stellan Skarsgard), who becomes a regular client of Bettina and then asks Parvez to round up more hookers for a sex party. Tensions flare when Farid and his Islamic buddies decide on a moral cleanup of their part of town.
During its first half-hour, the movie struggles to find a tone as it lays out its setting and characters. But as Puri’s performance gradually dominates, and his slow-burning relationship with Griffiths’ hard-bitten hooker swims into focus, pic starts to engage the viewer on an emotional level. Puri’s character emerges as a touching construct, unable to shake off his attachment to an idealized vision of British life and values but still blessed with a tolerance that many round him would do well to emulate.
In Kureishi’s script, adapted from a short story first published in the New Yorker and later in the collection “Love in a Blue Time,” the extremes are lightly rendered rather than forming a hard-edged political core. Scenes of the Pakistani fundamentalist taking over his home (and later revealed as a semi-charlatan with a far more pragmatic agenda) are played as light comedy, and the son’s conversion is given relatively little screen time — a wise decision given the character’s weak dialogue and Kurtha’s less than magnetic presence.
It’s basically Puri and Griffiths’ movie, with their scenes together the strongest. Veteran Indian actor Puri (so good in director Udayan Prasad’s previous “Brothers in Trouble”) treads a skilled line between bruised Asian paterfamilias and fumbling lovesick admirer, and Australian thesp Griffiths is completely believable as the tough tart with a heart who’s won over by the older man’s gentleness. Following her smallish role in “Jude,” Griffiths adds another spot-on regional English accent to her portfolio.
Other roles are small but succinctly drawn, from Skarsgard’s cold, sexually insatiable German, through Harish Patel’s pragmatic restaurateur, to Desai’s long-suffering Asian wife. Tech credits are pro, with Stephen Warbeck’s music nicely mingling Western and Asian elements. Overall, pic has more of a telefilm look than did “Brothers in Trouble,” but shows few signs of rumored post-production squabbles.