since his first screenplays, abt the IRA ronan bennett has assiduously mined the “political outlaw” seam, the borderline between fanatical idealism and crime

and the hamburg cell, an unscandalised and non-demonising C4 telefilm abt the 9-11 terrorists, directed by antonia bird, unfurls his usual scrupulousness about the how of this dynamic – why bad things get done by ppl who aren’t Obvious Cartoon Monsters etc – but more than ever it highlights his bizarre lack of imagination when it comes to the non-political dimensions of ppl’s lives.

At the structural or narrative level, bennett sets up a plausible series of social contexts: young arab students far from home, lonely, naive, confused, far from certain abt their own capabilities in a highly competitive yet brusquely indifferent, not to say contemptuously graceless territory (i’m talking abt modern universities, not germany): well-educated, ambitious smart put-upon adolescents caught between cultures, embarrassed about their lineage yet deeply guilty abt this embarrassment; normal horny kids attracted to and frightened of and baffled by and at high emotional risk from the complicatedly different sexual-material-consumer culture they’ve been flung into…

the two he chooses to highlight are zaid jarrah and (more than somewhat notorious in the news-retellings of this story) mohamed atta, the first a dentistry student from the lebanon who’s married a modern turkish girl, the second an egyptian (not a palestinian as claimed in the review linked to) driven by his father to achieve: this second tension is captured well (i’ve no idea how historical it is but i assume bennett wd be at his most careful here), given how little screentime it’s given – but the first, which is the prime organising focus of the film, is terribly lame and limp

the girl, Aysel (played by Agni Tsangaridou), is pretty-as-per-convention and almost entirely empty as a character, since her whole purpose plotwise is to symbolise what jarrah is attracted to and rejecting, viz the Healthy Liberal Westernised Muslim Coupledom As Seen in the Adverts (thus at the climactic moment, the Fall of the Towers, she’s left watching the news footage in silence, w.her mouth hanging slackly passively open).

Atta has a spark of panicked petulance, the fear the mark of never-voiced uncertainties: to be honest, it’s a pity his story (as a figure for generational tensions within modern islam) wasn’t a lot more the focus (maybe it wd have required pushing speculation beyond acceptable bounds – Atta’s family, innocent of any connection with the attack, are real-life still-living bystanders, after all). But then so (presumably) is Aysel: I guess Het Couple screen conventions fall within acceptable limits, dramatic-reconstruction-wise. Jarrah is soft-voiced w.a private smile, and basically remains an Enigma Living a Double Life. Indeed, the presumably unintended effect of contrasting Healthy Young Ad-Style Coupledom w.this bevy of soft-voiced slightly bland young men living in the margins – w/o women apart from jarrah’s aysel – is to make the cell and al qaeda culture seem not just homosocial (almost any army will tend to be homosocial) but gay-tho-closeted. To which I’d say, make MORE of this notion, or LESS.

I liked the sense of life-in-the-margins, authentic or not (how wd i know?): the feel of the filming of secret projects undertaken in anonymous and overlooked public spaces reminded me a lot of stephen frears’s dirty pretty things (abt the world of illegal immigration and the organ market in london): but the cell – the linked mini-network of cells – stayed faceless and out of reach, as did any genuine sense of islam as a vivid, contradictory, lived LARGE world (surely to a middle east audience the substitution of a Palestinian for an Egyptian makes as much sense as confusing, I don’t know, a Northern Ireland Catholic with a Frenchman) (it’s an inattentive viewer that makes this mistake, not the film, but the film allows it be made).

Bennett seems attracted to an outward-seeming saintliness: the dark side of genuine idealism, if you like. I suppose that I doubt that’s what this story is actually ultimately about: and the hamburg cell didn’t convince me. Well, plainly a alternative/provocative retelling in Kelly’s Heroes ensemble mode, say – viz. making an internal drama of the types in a variegated-melting-pot-of-rogues-vs-nazis style caper – will be politically impossible for years, at least in the TV mainstream. And anyway, maybe such a formal approach wd hugely misrepresent this story: maybe the filmform or genre for it simply hasn’t been discovered yet.