Dir. Kenny Glenaan, 2004, Germany/UK, 87 mins
Cast: Archie Panjabi, Shahid Ahmed, Syed Ahmed, Steve Jackson, Renu Setna
Yasmin is a relatively low budget, British-financed and made film about a young, attractive, British Pakistani Muslim woman brought up in northern England. That is an unusual and welcome starting point for a film. However, the film’s weaknesses do not overcome this stimulating basis.
Yasmin (Archie Panjabi, with a strong performance that suffers from the script, and who at times seems to be playing more towards her own background rather than Yasmin’s) works for some sort of charity or social services. She is in an arranged marriage with Faysal (Shahid Ahmed, playing well given the limitations of his role) and Nasir (newcomer Syed Ahmed in a powerful performance) is a devoted but restrictive father. Her family lives through the attitudes to non-white Britons and to the changes wrought by 9/11.
Given the appropriate shooting style (the first DoP was sacked; replacement Toni Slater-Ling has done a fine job of making things interesting without coating them in sugar), the competent and sometimes excellent direction from former actor Kenny Glenaan and generally fine performances all round, it is on the writing and plotting that criticism must centre.
Unfortunately writer Simon Beaufoy’s script is one that flashes with occasional brilliance before subsiding into a hinterland between credibility and exploitation. Much has been made in the publicity for Yasmin about the extensive workshopping process that led to the script. The idea for the film started with the Oldham and Bradford riots of 1999, before morphing into rather different territory under the pressure of 9/11. The film never does manage to balance between these two poles.
A film inspired by those riots would need a sharply observed sense of place, and of the mixture of identities inherent in being born non-white in Britain. Yasmin has the latter, though the identities are rather crudely displayed sometimes, but it does not have the former. The workshops took place “across the north” and the film is set in what is described in the publicity as “a northern mill town”. Quite what the presence of a mill has to do with anything in a northern town today – except tourism – is baffling. Yasmin was actually shot in Keighley. Not making the location explicit is understandable, but the idea of an interchangeable ‘north’ betrays the same lack of precision that afflicts the characters.
To encompass differences of gender, nationality, religion and age is to ask a great deal of any character or script, and it proves too much for either the film or Yasmin to bear. Her character, so central to the film, is forced to display these different identities rather than possess them. She is therefore left with little sense of self to give to the viewer.
The beautifully realised opening, entirely without dialogue for a good few minutes, is the strongest part of the film, but is the base it then goes on to ignore. Yasmin’s work is what enables her to escape the binds of the other parts of her identity, and yet we never find out what it is. It funds the Golf cabriolet she drives (there’s even a line of dialogue on this); it gives her a life away from her husband and her home; she is employee of the month (which we only find out when someone has drawn an Osama-style beard on the picture). It is about as realistic a portrayal of work as an average Hollywood movie.
Yasmin’s work also represents an independence that doesn’t seem to fit with an arranged marriage. Quickly it is made clear that the marriage is an unhappy one, her husband Faysal – the “thick Paki” as she describes him – being more concerned with his new goat than in trying to bridge the gap to his wife.
The only character who isn’t required to represent things beyond his character, and is therefore the strongest, is the father. Setna infuses the struggles of maintaining a family, traditions and sanity with palpable tastes of loss, confusion and frustration.
Finally, then, Yasmin is a victim of over-ambition. If there had been more time devoted to the atmosphere in Britain between Muslims and Christians before and after 9/11, perhaps we would have heard the two leaders’ words in a more different context. If there had been time to explore Yasmin’s marriage to Faysal, we might have been able to understand better why she turns to him amidst the difficulties of his and then her arrest. If there had been time to sketch race relations (as opposed to religious ones) in Britain before 9/11 we might have had a better understanding of the film’s setting and of the struggles within Yasmin’s family. If we had seen more of the role of the mosque in that community, we might have been able to understand better the attraction Nasir feels towards becoming involved with terrorists. As those terrorists tell Nasir, “the war against Islam has gone global”. In which case there is all the more need for specifics, for an understanding which can only come through exploration, not display.
Although Yasmin tries to do far too much, it is an interesting to watch it do so. So far there are distributors for most of Europe except the UK, which is something that should change, for this unbalanced and unusual film is worth watching nonetheless.
Review by Richard Dilks