Dir: Sharon Maguire. UK. 2008. 96mins.

This relatively large-scale UK production about the human cost of terrorism is an overly earnest, narratively muddled affair notable chiefly for a gutsy performance by Michelle Williams. Although it starts promisingly, Sharon Maguire's first film since Bridget Jones's Diary in 2001 quickly veers into the preposterous, its plot mechanics neglected in favour of a focus on the grieving process.

Buyers and audiences will be drawn by the pairing of Williams with Ewan McGregor (they will also be seen together later this year in The Tourist) but the appetite for harrowing depictions of suicide bombings in the heart of London might be limited, not to mention stories about tragic death and grief. The failure at the box office of post-9/11 films such as Rendition, Lions For Lambs and In The Valley Of Elah, as well as titles about the after-effects of tragedy (Reservation Road, Things We Lost In The Fire), don't bode well for Incendiary.

Maguire herself adapted the film from Chris Cleave's novel but makes several key changes, although the film is still couched as a letter from a young working class woman to Osama Bin Laden.

The woman is married to a bomb disposal expert whose preoccupation with various terror threats has put a strain on the marriage. The two have a four year-old son (Johnston) on whom the woman dotes, but when her husband is called off on duty, she goes out searching for affection and sex and one week is picked up by a journalist for The Daily Express called Jasper Black (McGregor).

On the Saturday of that week (May Day), when her husband and son have gone to the Arsenal match at the local Emirates Stadium, she brings Jasper back to her council house and the two make love while watching the match. But just as they are in mid-coitus, a series of bombs explodes at the stadium and the two race to the scene of the disaster.
Sure enough, both her husband and her son are among the many fatalities of the attack by Islamic fundamentalists and the woman has to face up to her loss. She finds a solace of sorts with her husband's boss, high level anti-terrorism policeman Terrence Butcher (Macfadyen), who gradually attempts to woo her into a relationship with him.

Meanwhile, Jasper identifies one of the suicide bombers in some CCTV footage and informs the woman of his identity. She tracks down his family in St Albans and develops an affectionate rapport with his son (Usman Khokhar). One day, when she has enticed him to spend a morning with her in London, he is identified by the police in Waterloo Station as a threat and chased through the concourse; the woman takes a bullet for him.

While she recovers in hospital, Jasper and Terrence vie for her affections and she finds out some shocking truths about the police's advance knowledge of the May Day bombings. Estranged from both suitors, she sinks into a deep depression and deludes herself into thinking that her son is still alive. Only the discovery that she is pregnant propels her forward out of her grief.

The bombing itself is a powerful sequence and Maguire is aided by some impressive effects work. Images of nationwide grief ring true and the notion of dirigibles launched into the air above London, one for each victim, is an effectively surreal effect recalling the Blitz in World War II.
If the bombing itself is hauntingly plausible, the plot contains far too many implausibilities - the ease with which the woman gains access to the disaster site, the fact that Jasper Black identifies one of the bombers before the police, the fact that the woman is left alone in the terrorism czar's office and tidies up his top secret files unchecked, the fact that she is shot in the back by police yet seems barely hurt.

By the time Williams delivers her final Churchill-esque monologue to Osama, it is clear that Maguire wants the film to be a big-hearted plea for humanity on both sides. But by weakening the audience's faith in the plot, she has undermined the impact of her message.

Williams, complete with solid north London accent, throws herself into the part of the mother and confirms that she is one of her generation's most interesting actresses. Even when the film loses the plot, as it were, she is always compelling to watch.

Production companies
Archer Street (UK)
Sneak Preview (UK)
Film4 (UK)
Aramid Entertainment (UK)

International sales
Capitol Films
(44) 1 7298 6200

Andy Paterson
Anand Tucker
Adrienne Maguire

Sharon Maguire

Ben Davis

Production designer
Kave Quinn

Valerio Bonelli

Shigeru Umebayashi
Barrington Pheloung

Main cast
Michelle Williams
Ewan McGregor
Matthew Macfadyen