Honour: Film Review
Low-budget British feature about Islamic honor killings is a partially successful hybrid of social-realist drama and escapist revenge thriller.
LONDON - An angry contemporary drama about so-called “honor killings” within British-Asian Muslim families may sound purposely designed to generate Alice of Arabia-style controversy, but first-time writer-director Shan Khan succeeds in making a polished and intelligent thriller from this hot-button issue. Opening in British theaters this week, Honour already has domestic V.O.D. and home entertainment release slots booked later in April. Khan’s punchy debut feature is clearly limited in budget and resources and feels like a small-screen production in places. But its topical theme and the brooding presence of co-star Paddy Considine (Cinderella Man, The Bourne Ultimatum) could help generate modest interest overseas.
Leading an attractive cast, Aiysha Hart stars as Mona, a young woman of Pakistani background living in London with her widowed mother and two brothers. Outside the home, Mona is a modern British citizen with an unmarried boyfriend called Tanvir (Nikesh Patel). But in family settings, she falls under the strict control of her devoutly religious mother (Bend It Like Beckham veteran Harvey Virdi) and older brother Kasim (Faraz Ayub), a violent sociopath who also happens to be a policeman. Mona’s deeply conservative, patriarchal family fiercely disapprove of her dating Tanvir, who is also a Muslim but of Punjabi lineage. By their twisted logic, she is bringing shame and dishonor on their Pashtun heritage, and thus signing her own death warrant.
After Kasim sabotages his sister’s plans to elope with Tanvir, she goes on the run alone, fearing for her life. Mona’s mother then hires Considine’s nameless bounty hunter, a racist ex-con who specializes in finding runaways, to track down her daughter and bring her home. In this cynical alliance of white supremacist and Islamic traditionalist, both parties share an unspoken understanding that Mona will likely be killed. But when Kasim’s murder attempt backfires dramatically, the family again turns to Considine’s cold-blooded enforcer to finish the job.
Laid bare in plot terms, Honour sounds like a routine chase thriller with a sensationalist culture-clash theme. But Khan’s screenplay contains some smart twists and trapdoors, scrambling chronology so that events unfold in non-linear loops, revealing extra context with hindsight. Though the story opens with what looks like a brutal murder, various surprises and reverses lies ahead. Many are highly implausible, but at least they keep suspense levels simmering.
Honour begins like a high-end British TV drama before slowly assuming the amped-up feel of a Hollywood revenge thriller, with both the pros and cons that implies. The narrative journey here is reminiscent of Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things, which likewise progressed from social-realist grit to fairy-tale escapism. It appears Khan felt an obligation to balance depressing reality with hopeful fantasy, even at the expense of plausibility. Eagle-eyed U.K. viewers may also feel a slight visual disorientation in scenes where Glasgow and the Isle of Man stand in for London, not very convincingly.
In fairness, there are some strong set-pieces here, including a rooftop gun battle and a chilling burial scene in misty woodland. Theo Green’s score also provides effective emotional shading, evolving from ambient unease to propulsive, percussive panic. That said, Khan lapses too easily into cliché as the tension mounts. Kasim is a rich creation, a devoutly religious bad lieutenant who pours contemptuous curses on his British police colleagues in fluent Urdu, but he becomes a villainous caricature by the last act, over-explaining his cruel intentions. Considine’s hard-bitten hit man is likewise a compelling anti-hero, but the belated discovery of his long-dormant conscience is a jarringly contrived exercise in redemption.
An uneven mix of serious issue movie and sensational thrill ride, Honour is no masterpiece, but it is an accomplished debut. Khan is plainly an emerging talent worth watching, while the strikingly beautiful Hart has obvious star potential. Considine, of course, is always a reliably magnetic screen presence, even in this kind of monochromatic Man With No Name role.
Production companies: Isle of Man Film, Newscope Films, Parti Productions, Code Red
Producers: Jason Newmark, Nisha Parti
Starring: Aiysha Hart, Paddy Considine, Harvey Virdi, Faraz Ayub, Nikesh Patel
Director: Shan Khan
Writer: Shan Khan
Cinematographer: David Higgs
Editor: Beverley Mills
Music: Theo Green
Sales company: 108 Media
Rated 15 (U.K.), 104 minutes