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The Reluctant Fundamentalist | Review

Turn and Face the Strain: Nair’s Latest Adaptation a Return to Form

The Reluctant Fundamentalist Mira Nair PosterCiting the project as nearly five years in the making, Mira Nair’s adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist follows on the heels of her 2009 Amelia Earhart biopic and sees the auteur returning to fresh, exciting material. Opening up Hamid’s monologue driven novel into a more balanced dialogue that oscillates between a tense present day interview and a decade long flashback used to establish a hearty back story, William Wheeler’s adapted screenplay does its best to engage a Western audience with a disenfranchised character that’s refreshingly critical of the xenophobic undercurrents in the Land of the Free.

In 2011 Lahore, Pakistan, an American professor is abducted by a political terrorist faction, which sets in motion a series of events against a fellow colleague at the university, Professor Changez (Riz Ahmed), who is believed to have ties with this faction and may know where the kidnapped American resides. An ex-pat journalist, Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), is dispatched to interview Changez, who agrees in hopes to convince Lincoln of his innocence, thereby clearing his name and imminent threat to his immediate family. Changez begins his tale by going back a decade in time where he had already been accepted at Princeton, at odds with his poet father (Om Puri), whose notable authorial status wasn’t enough to pay the bills. Changez lands a job at a famous Wall Street firm as a financial analyst, and wows his boss, Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland), and eventually nabs a slot as an associate. He also falls in love with Erica (Kate Hudson), an up-and-coming photographer who happens to be the boss’s niece and who recently lost her significant other in a drunk driving accident for which she was responsible.

As Changez doggedly dodges his ideals in his insistent pursuit of the American Dream, everything comes to halt on one infamous day in 2001. Discovering first hand the effects of ignorant racism that washes over America, Changez’s disillusionment quickly fades, and he flees back to Lahore as the life he built collapses around him. Becoming a university professor, it’s not long before he’s approached by Muslim fundamentalists, and he slowly begins to realize that there’s little difference between the zealotry on either side of the world. But has he convinced Lincoln of his innocence and lack of knowledge pertaining to the whereabouts of the missing American?

While its setup features some minor hiccups along the way, we’re completely invested in the compelling account of Changez, so it’s rather unfortunate that its final climax unravels into predictable melodrama. The process it takes to get there, however, is another matter. Hopping from Pakistan, New York, Atlanta, Istanbul, India, and the Philippines, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an international endeavor, and accomplished cinematographer Declan Quinn manages to create a different feel in each diverse setting. New York City has rarely seemed so chilly and uncaring as it does here.

Rising star Riz Ahmed gives a disarmingly grounded performance, and after working with Michael Winterbottom, Chris Morris, Neil Marshall, and Ben Drew it’s only a matter of time before his name is no longer preceded by labels like British-Pakistani. Familiar Hollywood faces will make this more accessible for Western eyes, though their characters are hardly likeable. Kiefer Sutherland’s Jim Cross (sounds a lot like Jim Crow), in yet another surprisingly effective supporting turn, is a snaky, cold-hearted father figure to the ambitious Changez. Less effective is the overly predictable relationship he develops with Kate Hudson’s Erica. While Hudson is, for once, appropriately cast as a viciously unlikeable and thoughtless member of the privileged class, her character feels like it would have been more at home in a soapy kitchen sink drama.

For his part, Schreiber does what he can, but it’s easy to see how his character originally was an anonymous non-presence; he isn’t much more than a cipher of ideology, a reluctant fundamentalist himself. A film that should at least be bound to generate intelligent conversations, Nair’s latest isn’t without familiar issues, but it’s a damn refreshing point of view.

Reviewed on April 13 at the 2013 Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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