DVD Review: Incendiary (2008)

Michelle Williams & Ewan McGreggor
Reunite in Sharon Maguire's Explosive
Incendiary on 5/5/09

Also Available On Demand From Amazon

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As we hear in endless prescription commercials-- most medications come with a stern warning to patients not to operate heavy machinery while under the influence of whatever the pill contains. And much like the supremely devastating work of Danish Dogme director Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, and Manderlay)-- Bridget Jones's Diary helmer Sharon Maguire traded in the tacky reindeer sweater of Colin Firth for her unflinchingly bleak follow-up film Incendiary which, similar to von Trier's films should be doled out to viewers along with a temporary supply of anti-depressants at least until the post-traumatic stress wears off.

Although the phenomenal turn by Brokeback Mountain Oscar nominee Michelle Williams anchors this controversial tragedy that-- like David Gordon Green's recent Snow Angels-- proves that women's weepie cinema didn't die in the 1950s as initially assumed-- even an impassioned portrayal can't aid the film during its severe gaps in logic, human decency, taste, and thinly disguised manipulation as a female punishment picture.

Although helmed by a woman, Incendiary invites us to judge right from the start as we meet Williams as a strong-willed Cockney accented cliched East Ender who takes her beloved four year old son to the beach for a day while running around in jeans that read "Sexy Mama." Soon her voice-over begins labeling her sad-sack soccer obsessed (or "football" rather), Top Gear, and TV dinner husband "right miserable," while she bemoans her hum-drum life as a third generation resident in what appears to be government housing.

Moreover, and in an incredibly unflattering light, we see Williams portraying someone whom Maguire and the original novel's author want us to assume is so typical that she hasn't even been given the decency of being bestowed with an actual name and the only one that seems to stick out from the start is the lewd one she applies to herself as a "slapper."

To this end, it isn't long before the "young mother" who is prone to wearing miniskirts and staring off into space in boredom decides to act. Thus, tired of coping with her psychologically drained police officer husband who returns from work on the bomb squad with the same unfunny line, "Well, I'm still here, aren't I?" whenever Williams inquires about his day, she begins looking for an outside thrill.

Dressing even trashier than usual and planting her baby monitor directly in the hands of a next door neighbor, she hits the local pub and makes a good show of blowing off the slightly sleazy journalist (Ewan McGregor) who comes onto her instantly before soon enough he's at her table, the floodgates open, and she begins telling him every detail about her unhappy life.

Williams manages to evoke sympathy for her stereotypical character in that we sense just how lonely she is without someone with whom to speak and-- despite the fact that she embarks on an affair, because of her undeniable humanity and authenticity, we're with her every step. However, it's a tentative trust we have in her that is dismissed just as soon as it is introduced by Maguire, working from the divisive and infamous novel by Chris Cleave-- when it moves Williams' and McGregor's early coupling into excruciatingly tawdry terrain.

For, in the middle of a very graphic extramarital shag right on the sofa she watches television on with her husband, the two are caught in the act by the most brutal form of comeuppance ever as a bomb rips through the soccer stadium where her husband and child are at that very minute.

Running towards the scene of horrific terrorism which left over a thousand residents killed-- still in shock-- we suspend our disbelief long enough with our jaws still on the floor as McGregor and Williams journey to the site knowing in our gut even before she does that the men in her immediate family are dead because as the film implies, "the slapper" deserved it.

While Cleave's novel had the intense misfortune of being released on the very day that London's public transit system was attacked back on July 7, 2005, Maguire's film-- already building in that bad sense of karma-- was struck by more horrific timing when its premiere at Sundance coincided with the death of Williams' ex and father of her child, Heath Ledger in 2008.

Now over one year later, Incendiary makes its way to DVD and Blu-ray via ThinkFilm and Image Entertainment. And while certainly it's bolstered by the performances of its two lead stars who also worked well together in the equally misguided yet infinitely more watchable, predictable clunker Deception with Hugh Jackman, Incendiary is a film that it's nonetheless hard to view objectively. This is especially true given not just the subject matter and sense that the wounds are still not healed in regards to horrific attacks but also on another level when you realize what Williams has gone through as well.

Still, trying to push all this aside and simply focus on the narrative with gaping plot holes and juggling a few too many red herrings and false starts in this jam-packed work that has several storylines all fighting to be the main one-- we're left with an absolutely compelling and heart-rending performance by Williams in a film that moves from a five stages of grief melodrama to paranoid thriller as Williams and McGregor ascertain that a cover-up may have been involved. As if this isn't enough, it also tries at least for little while as well to become a portrait of loss on both sides of the situation when she becomes friends with the unaware and surviving family members of a man who was more than likely one of the suicide bombers.

Flirting with the possibility of moving into Pelican Brief territory as her husband's former boss (creepily played by Matthew Macfadyen) makes a play for Williams and lets a few details about that fateful day at the stadium slip in an unforgiving and disturbing love triangle-- the film's decision to make McGregor a journalist at first showed potential that a mystery would be resolved but ultimately it's all inconsequential.

And unfortunately Maguire's adaptation and direction for the work soon makes a large case that it's an allegorical female punishment movie a la The Life Before Her Eyes as Williams' tartish character must make amends and physically save or resurrect life to "replace" the ones she took away with her unbridled lust.

While it does have its moments of sheer power and gives Williams a real "one woman show" style to display her amazing capability to convey emotion despite our wish that she was offered something far better than this work-- in the end it buries itself an even deeper grave. Embodied in an arc that at first seemed chilling and intriguing-- we find Williams narrating letters she's written to Osama Bin Laden as part of the healing process to deal with her loss that move from poignant to ridiculous by the film's conclusion with lines that have been quoted verbatim in countless reviews in utter disbelief.

A well-intentioned film that nonetheless "blows apart"-- to borrow from its tagline-- by the "truth" that it's all flash and spark that ignites us more from shock than by anything from the picture as a whole; in fact, you'll discover that much like Life Before Her Eyes and Blindness, you'll grow even warier of it the day after the one hundred minute work concludes and you can start wrapping your head around what you've seen.

Of course, I must admit that it's always nice to see the natural chemistry between Williams and McGregor and this pleasant admiration would be even stronger if the two were actually allowed to act opposite one another in a film that's worth their considerable talents. Moreover, let's hope that next time for the sake of the women of London's East End who may not appreciate the idea that they're all nameless and interchangeable or journalists who will do anything for a story-- we find them moving away from anything resembling a conspiracy and perhaps towards something that--horror of horrors, may actually involve a smile or come without a warning of serious post-traumatic depression.