There is something about British thrillers that gives them an edge of grittiness over their American counterparts. American thrillers, with their oft-overblown budgets seem to associate ‘thrills’ with massive explosions and car chases that, for me, feel rinsed to redundancy. Over here, courtesy of limited budgets, thrillers are more restrained, achieving their desired effects through bone-crunching violence, brooding characters and a heavier grounding in reality. Despite a few awkward plot elements, Cleanskin ticks most of the boxes for a solid Brit thriller, and not just because Sean Bean’s his usual brooding self in it (though that helps).
Cleanskin is set against a backdrop of increased terrorist activity in London. After Islamic extremists blow up a Central London restaurant using Semtex stolen from the government, it is down to Ewan (Sean Bean), to track down the perpetrators and despatch them by any means necessary. The mission, assigned by a scarily cold, chain-smoking Charlotte Rampling, is highly confidential, and inevitably leads Ewan into a murky shit-pool of uncertainty and conspiracy.
Bean is obviously the marketing draw of the film, and delivers a trademark menacing performance oozing with repressed rage. He is filled with an angry kind of nationalism, constantly reminding others that he ‘loves his country,’ and is prepared to kill and die for it. The more interesting story, however, is that of Ash (Abhin Galeya), a British-born Muslim who gets indoctrinated into extremism by a dangerously charismatic cleric (played by a risible Peter Polycarpou).
Contrary to expectation, much of the film focuses on Ash’s time at university (shown in flashback), his romance with fellow student Kate (a gorgeous Tuppence Middleton… her performance isn’t bad either), and his eventual abandonment of this whole lifestyle in order to fight for jihad. This whole story arc is well fleshed-out, convincingly portraying Ash’s confusion about where his loyalties really lie. As he gets assigned increasingly dangerous and morally dubious missions, he begins to doubt his cause, as we begin to hope that he’ll just hook up with his gorgeous girl, leave this Holy War malarkey behind and ride off into the sunset.
Ewan’s story is not as emotionally engaging, but provides more of the usual ‘thriller’ trademarks that we expect from such a film. As he unquestioningly hunts down members of the terrorist cell with his assigned partner (Tom Burke), the mission becomes increasingly shady as we begin to smell conspiracy in the air. Ultimately however, that inevitable final twist does not match up to expectations. After an excellent climax where the two plot-lines finally come together, the ‘big conspiracy’ feels like a tag-on at the end; a predictable one that’s resolved by happy chance rather than some masterful piecing together of the plot’s loose ends.
Stylistically, the film is archetypal of brilliant Brit thrillers. The colour palette is mostly downcast, with a sense of bad things to come hanging in the air as heavily as the London smog. Instead of silly explosions, director Hadi Hajaig opts to stun us with unrestrained depictions of violence; brains splatter and bones get broken, but these are far from the most horrifying acts in the film, which are left off-screen. While in themselves brutal, many of the acts are all the more unpleasant as they involve innocent victims (‘collateral damage’ as Nabil puts it), hitting home the needless suffering that this conflict is causing.
When portraying both sides of this terrorism rut we seem to be stuck in, it’s crucial to maintain a degree of objectivity. Both Ewan and Ash have their reasons for fighting their respective sides of the war, and both of them are tragically misguided. In fact, a key thing missing in the script is a voice of reason. Even seemingly educated students like Katy and fellow student Nick reveal themselves to harbour the ignorance you’d expect to see in the BNP, which is a harsh judgement by the director. With no middle-ground to the argument of ‘blow them all up’ on the one hand and ‘send them back to their own country’ on the other, it’s hard to see how an intelligent guy like Ash got so easily swayed towards extremism.
Cleanskin ambitiously attempts to tackle the contentious topic of the reasoning behind terrorism while entertaining us with a charged and fast-paced plot. In both senses, it’s a partial success. The strong focus on Ash’s personal life creates an emotional point of contact for the viewer, though it doesn’t entirely fit with his final actions in the film. Likewise, the final twist in Ewan’s story should’ve either been more convoluted or just omitted altogether. Still, Cleanskin is a visceral, distinctly British thriller that makes up for some patchy plotting by keeping you on the edge of your seat.