Chris Cleaves’ novel attracted some notoriety when it was published just days before the London bombings of July 2005. It’s the story of a young mum (Michelle Williams) whose husband and four year old son are killed when suicide bombers wreak havoc at an Arsenal vs Chelsea match. As if that wasn’t bad enough, mum’s engaged in extra-marital nookie at the time with sexy Express journalist Jasper Black (Ewan McGregor).
With Jasper’s help she evades police roadblocks and gets far enough into the stadium to wind up in hospital herself. While the country mourns the dead, Jasper identifies one of the bombers and passes on the address of the killer’s widow and son to his scarred lover.
The stage seems set for a creepy revenge thriller built from the racially inflammatory suspicions and resentments running through contemporary Britain, but writer-director Sharon Maguire (Bridget Jones’s Diary) has other ideas. Bizarrely Incendiary has at least as much in common with Helen Fielding chick-lit as PD James-style psychological suspense. “Bridget Jones’s Breakdown” is more like it.
Williams is barely out of hospital before anti-terrorist police boss Terrance (Matthew Macfadyen) is cosying up to her bearing invites to a caravan show (cue for a heartfelt but deeply dodgy analogy between global terror and the sanctity of a man’s caravan). “I’ll pick up the broken pieces of your heart and put them back together,” he vows, “No matter how long it takes!”
Is Michelle better off with flash Jasper (but can she ever forget that Arsenal game?) or boring, dependable Terrance (but hang on, isn’t he a Chelsea supporter)? More to the point, why should we care? Neither of these cads is remotely likeable, or even believable.
In any case, there’s something sickening about watching violence visited on your country in a way that feels so close to home and yet so cheap and manipulative. At least a genre movie like 28 Weeks Later gives the imagination room to roam; here, we’re more likely to be offended by the liberties the filmmakers take with urban geography, or the sheer tastelessness of the “cemetery in the sky” – a flotilla of blimps emblazoned with the faces of the dead moored across the London skyline. (Perhaps this was supposed to be satire?)
A gifted and versatile actress, Michelle Williams gets the accent right, but she’s too clean-cut for a working class lass – the character is unnamed but describes herself as a “slapper” in one of her regular letters to Osama Bin Laden. You only have to imagine the edge Samantha Morton, Sally Hawkins or Nathalie Press might have brought to the part, a raw vulgarity that’s simply not in Williams’ DNA.
But there’s so much in this ambitious/opportunistic effort that misses the mark, from the one-dimensional characters to the craven plotting and sentimental tone. Maguire is playing with fire, and Incendiary blows up in her face.
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