Quote: “You can stand up for a principle and you can die, or you can walk away and live.” This somewhat awkward line from a new low-budget British thriller, Born of War (2013), illustrates the tension at the heart of Vicky Jewson’s sophomore feature. On one hand, it’s an attempt to explore the murky ambiguities of conflict in Afghanistan over the past thirty years. There’s undoubtedly potential in the set-up, and a young female director helming a hard-hitting female-led actioner is a positive sight to see. That same line of dialogue, though, is reflective of the clumsy delivery that plagues Jewson’s follow up to 2008’s Lady Godiva. Right from its opening salvo, the execution leaves a great deal to be desired.
American actress Sofia Black-D’Elia takes the leading role as Oxford University student Mina, whose world is turned upside down when her parents are murdered amidst a chaotically shot and generally unconvincing raid on the family farm by terrorists. This sets the tone for what is to follow as Mina discovers hitherto unknown familial ties to a known terrorist, Khallid (Philip Arditti), and she subsequently agrees to aid MI6 in bringing him to justice. Black-D’Elia and James Frain – sporting stubble and a frown as her charismatic MI6 handler Simon – wade through stagnant dialogue scenes that labour on the importance of life before the commencing bullet-strewn stand-offs with faceless foes. Frustratingly, Born of War is grasping for meaning one minute and fluffing its action the very next.
The script seems to be the thing holding the former back with various actors floundering despite impressive CVs. Even the endlessly watchable Frain struggles with a lot of the early dialogue exchanges. Things do improve marginally around the mid-point when Mira and Simon enjoy some downtime and seem to build up a little chemistry. However, any characterisation is lost again when the plot recommences back in Afghanistan. It does so with a neat twist that reframes the potential conversation surrounding the film’s politics, and would be far more admirable if it followed through on engaging with it. Instead, it ultimately feels a lot like a handy plot contrivance – of which it is the only really successful example – rather than an active attempt to undercut genre conventions.
That Mina remains a strong female with agency is to be applauded, especially in a cinematic setting that is predominantly populated by Y-chromosomes. That she sorely lacks character development, however, is a real shame and hinders the audience’s ability to invest in her plight. More problematic still are some of the technical niggles that betray the film’s small budget; dialogue is often lost in the back of frames and the editing rushes one minute and drags the next. If these had been minor quibbles in the service of a strong screenplay, they would have been forgiveable, but regrettably they compound far deeper issues. Conceptually, Born of War sounds like a winner, but in reality more resembles the ravaged ruins of its war-torn setting.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson