[5 August 2009]

By Alistair Dickinson

PopMatters Associate Interviews Editor

Incendiary, the sophomore effort of Bridget Jones’s Diaries director Sharon Maguire, advertises itself in most of its promotional materials as a fast-paced modern thriller. Maguire, however, attempts to make something more than a genre flick, and unfortunately creates a disjointed, uneven picture in the process.

The film centers on a district in London’s East End where crammed, government-run tower blocks and their low-income residents share a street with expensive, renovated townhouses occupied by upper-middle class professionals. About the only thing the neighbors seem to have in common with each other is their shared love of the local football club, the Arsenal.

The film’s protagonist, played by Michelle Williams, is a young woman living in one of the council apartments, where she keeps house for her husband, Lenny—a distant figure who is constantly on-call as the bomb-defuser for an anti-terrorism unit – and her four-year-old-son, the only bright spot in what seems to be a bleak, grueling daily routine.

One night, the young mother meets a young reporter (Ewan McGregor) from the upscale part of the neighborhood while waiting for her husband to come back from attending to a bomb-scare. She is quickly attracted by this glimpse of ‘something different’, but also is instantly assailed by the guilt any abandonment of her heroic husband and adoring son would bring on. Before she has time to resolve this situation, however, a horrific terrorist attack blows apart the lives of the film’s characters, and Williams and her neighbors are left to try and piece themselves back together, with mixed results.

This film has several problems, not the least of which is the script. It accomplishes the rare feat of giving talented actors and actresses dialogue which is horribly clichéd, yet still manages to sound like nothing anyone has or would ever say in the history of mankind. It’s painful to watch McGregor and Matthew MacFayden—who plays the possibly-shady chief of Lenny’s unit—struggle to invest any meaning in so many awful, almost nonsensical, romantic speeches while the over-the-top score swells in the background.

This is a huge issue in a movie that has decided to add both soap-opera-worthy romantic complications and a sensitive look at how victims deal with grief (two of the more discernible attempted extra-genres) to its real-world-terrorism-thriller frame. Not only do the various elements clash with one another, they are poorly fashioned in and of themselves, creating a hodgepodge of mismatching jigsaw pieces with very little detail painted on them in the first place.

To make matters worse, none of the film’s many, interwoven subplots has an ending that is either satisfying or not completely ridiculous. The conspiracy that eventually is found to lie behind the bombings is neither shocking nor believable (or interesting) upon its revelation. None of the romantic engagements come to any kind of noticeable conclusion either, which is strange given the time spent on Williams’ and McGregor’s flirtations at the beginning of the story.

As for the main characters attempts to deal with grief, it’s depressing to think that a movie that takes her issues so seriously can honestly believe that its ending gives her closure. What’s even more frustrating is that while all of the main characters are supposed to be interconnected and to affect each other both in terms of the plot and emotionally, the viewer is never convinced that any of them have much of a stake in each others’ lives whatsoever.

It’s a shame, because the film does have some good moments, but they are not enough to save this drowning mongrel. Williams is the story’s real highlight (Maguire, once again, casts a blonde American gal as a Brit, with excellent results), admirably exhibiting the way the troubles of her character’s life are pressing on her happiness and sanity. But the direction and script shoot her in the foot at every turn.

While considering a fling with the reporter, Williams exudes a mature sexuality that is miles more intoxicating than any of the “sex-kitten” poses she put on in her Dawson’s Creek days. Yet this is all ruined by a subsequent sex-scene that’s laugh-out-loud silliness belies the heavenly strings that are used to score it. A friendly relationship that develops between Williams and a young boy—whose father may have been involved in the terrorist attack—is perhaps one of the film’s best section, Williams’ sighs and glances at the child perfectly evoking the emotions he and his situation stir in her. But again, all goodwill this may brew in the viewer is dissipated when this subplot ends with an absurd standoff at a tube station.

Maguire, in only her second round behind the director’s chair of a feature, may have done alright directing a less risky film in the thriller genre. Her ineptitude with love-scenes and action set-pieces aside, she does a fine job capturing the Euro-tones of London, framing each take perfectly and lingering for just the right amount of time on shots of the tube, the beach the young mother frequently visits, and the neighborhood most of the action takes place in. And she certainly captures the tension surrounding Williams and her associates capably enough.

Unfortunately, the script demands that in addition to this, she must add distractingly-odd touches like a flotilla of tribute-balloons over the city (a distressingly obvious symbol which becomes a distressingly important plot device) or an imaginary letter written by Williams’ character to Osama Bin Laden. With a leaner and better-written script, she might have given us something at least competent, something more like this year’s The International. Instead, we get a poor-man’s International, mixed with a less popular Lifetime Movie of the Week, and squeezed into an early-draft of Unfaithful. Sadly, the whole is not even equal to the sum of some incredibly faulty parts.

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