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PARK CITY — An anti-terrorism tale from the perspective of a young British mother, Incendiary taps the bewilderment and anger of our contemporary age. Based on a novel by Chris Cleave and written and directed by Sharon Maguire, it begs for saner heads to prevail in our crazy times. It’s a powerful and important message that the film unfortunately fails to deliver in a compelling way. Still, Michelle William’s riveting performance as the young mother makes it imminently watchable. But given the indifference to terrorism-themed fare in the last year, it’s hard to imagine “Incendiary” igniting at the boxoffice.
The woman (unnamed in the film) lives in a London tower overlooking a beautiful Georgian square. She’s married to Lenny (Nicholas Greaves), a weary police bomb expert, and is the devoted mother to a precocious 5 year old (Sidney Johnson). From the outside, it looks like a comfortable life but appearances can be deceiving.
She’s a bad girl who wears short skirts and provocative tops, but the passion is gone from her marriage. So she fools around, drops down to the local pub and gets someone to keep her company while her husband is off defusing terrorist bombs. On this occasion she picks up Jaspar Black (Ewan McGregor) and brings him home. He’s a lightweight but likable journalist who drives a fast Jaguar and lives conveniently across the street.
She runs into him again on Mayday as Lenny takes her son to a big soccer match. While she’s having some pretty steamy sex, she sees on TV that the soccer stadium has been the site of a terrorist attack. She tears out of her house like a woman on a mission, forces her way into the stadium only to be struck by falling girders. But it’s all for naught; eight suicide bombers have killed hundreds of people including her husband and child.
It’s an intriguing situation loaded with personal and political possibilities. But the story is listless and moves along in fits and starts without gathering much momentum. When Williams wakes up in the hospital and realizes what happened, she explodes at the unfairness of it all and her grief transforms her into a desperate person.
Jaspar, who discovers some explosive clues to the case, continues to pursue her. But she seems to have lost interest in him and nearly falls into a relationship with her husband’s boring ex-boss Terrence Butcher (Matthew Macfadyen) just for the safety of it. The director has set up this strange triangle with oblique angles, where people don’t quite connect. But the characters around the woman just seem too sketchy.
Williams is more obsessed with stalking the son of one of the bombers, but it’s unclear what her intentions are, and perhaps she doesn’t even know. When she saves him, displaying a mother’s compassion, she winds up back in the same hospital. It’s at this point that the story starts to feel repetitive and frequent flashbacks of her child at play don’t help matters.
Framing the story throughout is the narration of a letter the woman has been writing to Osama Bin Laden that she finally completes at the end. It’s a mother’s appeal for the safety of all children. Williams appears in almost every scene and shows a great range of emotion, from promiscuous to pitiful and everything in between. It’s a wonderful screen performance, and even if the story doesn’t come together with the impact it should, her plea for peace will linger.
Film4 and the U.K. Film Council, Aramid Entertainment
Director/writer: Sharon Maguire
Producers: Andy Paterson, Anand Tucker, Adrienne Maguire
Director of cinematography: Ben Davis
Production designer: Kave Quinn
Music: Shigeru Umebayashi
Costumes: Stephanie Collie
Editor: Valerio Bonelli
Young mother: Michelle Williams
Jasper Black: Ewan McGregor
Terrence Butcher: Matthew Macfadyen
Lenny: Nicholas Greaves
The boy: Sidney Johnston
The bomber’s son: Usman Khokhar
The bomber’s wife: Sasha Behar
Running time — 96 minutes
No MPAA rating
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The Woman King