Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Death in the Family

Paddy Considine in Honour

I'm at something of a disadvantage when it comes to writing about the British crime film, Honour (2014, directed by Shan Khan), because I don't want to step into the landmine of racial politics it engenders. It would be easy--poisonously easy--to deplore the cultural norms that give rise to honor killings in the Muslim world in a way that crosses into outright racism. The last thing I want to do is turn myself into Richard Dawkins, railing about the awfulness of Islam. The world isn't that simple and Islam is not monolithic. The film itself is intensely aware of its racial politics, but charges ahead with its story anyway.

The story follows two characters. Mona is a real estate agent who has a dalliance with a colleague without her family's knowledge or permission. Her paramour is warned off by her policeman brother, but to no avail. She will not be a virgin for what ever marriage her family can arrange for her, so instead of disgrace, they choose to murder her. Unfortunately, they botch the job and Mona flees for her life. Her mother chooses to hire a man to finish the job. The man she selects is Bounty, a white supremacist who has a complex past and present. He's a man with whom Mona's mother feels she can do business because he understands "honour" and, it's elided, the obligations of caste. Unfortunately, he's becoming disillusioned with his work and with his ideology, and when he catches up with Mona at last, he chooses another path. This is complicated by Kasim, Mona's eldest brother, who is is a policeman and able to use force with impunity to get what he wants...

As I say, this film circles around the question of racism, not just in its conception, but also in its texts and in its narrative patterns. The opening scene finds a pair of racist assholes on a commuter train harassing Muslim women. Bounty is seen deriding a man for wearing a National Front tattoo without "earning it." Mona's lover is the wrong "kind" for her, according to her family. Prejudice in this film is a kyriarchy that shifts around depending on the players. As a narrative structure, this is The Searchers as filtered through film noir, with Paddy Considine's bounty hunter filling the role of Ethan Edwards, the racist who must overcome his racism to find his redemption. In opposition to the ideology of John Ford's film, in this film, it's the family itself rather than some demonized other who are the enemy. In contemporary life, "family" isn't always or even usually the safe haven that traditionalists would have you believe. Honor killing is a "family value," after all.

Aiysha Hart in Honour

It should go without saying that this film's kyriarchy also includes a sense of ownership of women. That a woman taking control of who she chooses to love and who she chooses as a lover could bring so much shame to a family that the only reasonable course of action is to kill her is absurd on its face, and yet it's key to the cultural norms that fuel this film's plot. Mona's family doesn't value her as a person. She's chattel to be sold to a husband of their choosing. Defiance of this is punishable by death. "Women and slaves got ideas, it's been fucked ever since," Bounty tells Kasim. Women are a threat to patriarchal social order. They must be controlled even unto death. It's a monstrous ideology.

This is a contemporary film noir, and like many contemporary films noir, it fractures its chronology. Great whacks of this film are told in flashbacks, and the film ultimately loops back to its start like a Möbius. The structure of the film allows it to organize its narrative around its central crime, which it elides at the beginning of the movie before returning to it after the players and the plot have been set in motion. This kind of narrative has been around since the Gothic novel, but recent iterations of it have become almost cubistic. That's certainly the case here, give that the story has several points of view: Mona, her mother, Bounty, and Kasim. It looks at its crime from multiple angles. Also in the tradition of film noir: this is a social problem film in genre drag. Honor killings, the film's final titles tell us, account for the murder of 5,000 women annually. What the film doesn't tell us, unfortunately, is that that statistic bridges religions and ethnicities, so an uninformed viewer might suspect on the evidence of this film that it's a problem unique to Muslims. It's not and this is a serious flaw.

Aiysha Hart in Honour

This is a glum film, in part because it's so, so serious about its subject matter, in part because it's filmed in a dreary British noir style that drains the color out of even the daylight scenes. True, we do get a bit of Mona's romance early in the film and that stuff is sweet, but it's brief and it's mainly a Maguffin. The performances follow suit, with Faraz Ayub being all coiled intensity as Kasim and Harvey Virdi playing Mona's mother as a gregarious monster who is secure in her rightness of thought. Considine himself underplays a bit, delivering most of his lines in a gruff whisper. He makes a virtue of taciturnity. It's not a fun movie, by any means, but it's pretty good at what it does. Honour even indulges in the myth of the great good elsewhere, too, and as soon as Bounty outlines his future in some rural paradise away from his life of crime, he might as well have painted a target on his chest. In this, the film is almost classical in its adherence to form. For all this, Honour isn't a dour, depressing film, either. It has room for redemption in its worldview.

Note: this film is newly available on video or to stream at the usual outlets from 108 Media, who provided me with a screener.

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