Early critics have not been kind to Honour (★★½), Shan Khan’s topical thriller about a British Muslim family that hires a hit man (Paddy Considine) to murder their daughter (Aiysha Hart). The film arrives in select theaters on July 11 (it is simultaneously available for VOD) saddled with a “fresh” rating in the low thirties. That dislike surprises me a little. The film has some flaws, sure, but overall it is an honorable attempt to address a difficult, polarizing topic.
Let’s get the big flaw out of the way first. What is essentially a tightly focused drama–a case study really–is framed on either end with a Warriors/The Purge like encounter in a subway in which hooligans terrorize the commuters. The threatened violence at the beginning and end is not thematically beyond the pale, but it undercuts the film’s primary reason for being, which is to underscore one particular type of violence against women from one particular culture. I think the sort of audiences that would seek out this film are smart enough and fair enough to understand that just because Western nations don’t have the same problem with honor killings that some other cultures do, that doesn’t mean they don’t have their own problems with violence. Comparisons and analogies, whether overt or subtle, are risky things. They can help audiences see a theme, a character, or an action as having a kinship with something else, but they also risk diluting the particularity of one’s central focus from which much drama derives its greatest impact. (That’s why dramas usually have more emotional power than fables or allegories.)
I want to argue, though, that there is still enough there to recommend the film. Considine gives a nice performance as a world-weary hit man who appears to surprise himself at his distaste for the family that is offering him what should be easy money. Aiysha Hart plays Mona, the target of his contract, and her performance gives the film more emotional nuance than we normally get from films (such as The Terminator, The Gauntlet, or The Fugitive) that are essentially one long chase. Mona has to be spirited and independent enough that we believe she could defy such a conservative family and yet vulnerable enough that we can feel the horror of the realization that those who wish you dead are your own family. A late scene in which Mona confronts one of her brothers, challenging and deconstructing his self-righteous rhetoric, is delivered with a heartbreaking mix of defiance and despair. That scene alone is enough to justify the film.
According to this report in The Washington Post, there are over one thousand honor killings each year in Pakistan alone. The same article claims that the practice has widespread support in that nation, around 83% according to a Pew report. A 2010 report in The Middle East Quarterly cites a United Nations report estimating that there are 5,000 such homicides each year. Honour doesn’t seem likely to garner enough viewers to become an important film–one that could marshal people to action rather than merely indignation–but as an introduction to the topic for audience members who don’t read the international section of the newspaper and wouldn’t watch a documentary it is just fine.