Mona (Aiysha Hart) arrives home late, suitcase in hand, and it’s clear in the way she sneaks in that she’s hiding something. Her mother (Harvey Virdi) welcomes her, but the older woman’s chilly demeanor barely conceals her disapproval of her daughter’s late-night gallivanting. Mona’s older brother, Kasim (Faraz Ayub), shows up, and the three eat dinner and relax in front of the television.
Except none of them are even the slightest bit relaxed. Mona’s furtive glances at a knife in the kitchen and Kasim’s equally covert looks to mother add to a growing tension between them all. It’s broken as Kasim suddenly begins to strangle his sister while their mother holds Mona’s legs. The young woman struggles and writhes to no avail, attempting and failing to reach the knife she had secured in her back pocket, and before long her movements cease and she crumples, dead, into the couch cushions.
Or does she?
Honour targets a real-world issue that often fails to generate the kind of long-term outrage and disgust that it truly deserves, but the concept of honor killings is treated here as little more than thriller fodder. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if there were actual thrills to go along with it.
“Without honour life is nothing.”
The scene described above – which actually comes after a seemingly unrelated opening featuring two Muslim women being harassed by racist white trash on a train – is an incredibly suspenseful and harrowing sequence highlighting the brutality and inconceivable nature of something as dishonorable as so-called honor killings. But while writer/director Shan Khan begins his film with tension and style he quickly runs it off the rails with the script’s flashback-addicted structure.
Mona’s apparent murder fades to white before returning to her life just a couple days prior. We see her happily in love, but the Indian man in bed with her is not the future husband her Pakistani family has arranged for her. Knowing that neither of their families would approve, Mona and the Punjabi Tanvir (Nikesh Patel) are planning to run away together. He gets fear-induced cold feet though the night they’re supposed to leave, so suitcase in tow, Mona returns home. At this point we flash forward to mom and Kasim hiring an unnamed white supremacist (Paddy Considine) to find and kill the young woman. We follow him for a bit before jumping back to follow Kasim.
Jumbling up a film’s chronology is useful if there’s some added benefit to seeing the pieces out of order, but it’s the opposite that happens here. Opening aside, there is essentially no real tension, suspense or drama to be found because the flashback structure mutes the effect time and again. We know Mona survives the family’s attempt at murder and eludes a later chase through the woods because we see them hire Considine.
His character comes with its own set of issues as a flashback (yup, another one) reveals his role in the capture and killing of another Muslim woman by family members thereby setting him up as someone in need of redemption. But this past killing was mere days ago, and we see no compelling evidence or reason to believe that he would have a change of heart in his conscience-free lifestyle. Considine gives a fine performance, but the script gives his character no narrative spine from which to operate leaving a man whose only motivation for change is the picture of his own mom who abandoned him years ago.
There is one surprise in the film involving a character’s true purpose, but it’s used as little more than a “gotcha!” moment instead of one with any real depth or believability. That surface-level attention is consistent across the board here as motivations and influences are left free of detail and definition. We see no struggle in Kasim’s or their mother’s faces, and no other Muslim steps forward to point out Mohammad’s displeasure at the idea of honor killing. Well, no other Muslim but Mona anyway.
Khan’s direction results in some solid pacing and nice shots, but his script holds the entire project back with its unnecessary structure and weak characters. He does manage to get some good performances from his cast with Virdi and Ayub delivering as a cold as ice mother/son duo placing honor above humanity. Hart also does well and comes closest to finding a degree of emotion and drive missing from everyone else.
Honour ends with a statistic on honor killings stating that there are more than 5000 incidents per year. It’s not that big a number in the grand scheme of ways people die on an annual basis, but it’s staggeringly high when you consider that it’s family members – fathers and brothers and cousins who’ve spent their lives raising, loving and caring for their daughter or sister – who seemingly find it so easy to brutally kill their loved one because a book supposedly tells them to. There’s a very real and distressing drama in that concept, but there’s none of that in this film.
The Upside: Harrowing early scene; some good performances
The Downside: Flashback structure kills any suspense or drama; issue of honor killings is trivialized; so, all Muslims are bad?
On the Side: The 2013 Norwegian film, Before Snowfall, tackles the topic in a far more rewarding way by being more dramatic, suspenseful and powerful all around.
Honour is currently available on VOD and iTunes.