The 7/7 London terrorist attacks saw the term cleanskin enter the lexicon, with the expression being used to describe a terrorist previously unknown to the security forces. These were seemingly normal members of society who had been radicalised to the point that they were willing and able to carry out such atrocities. Writer and director Hadi Hajaig’s third feature examines the nature of the journey of one such cleanskin, Ash (an impressive and terse Abhin Geleya), the head of a cell planning a series of attacks in London in the week before a general election, alongside the tale of secret service agent Ewan (a fulminating Sean Bean) who is tasked with stopping the terrorists at all costs.
A frenetic exposition introduces Ewan, an ex-military heavy. When his charge, a loathsome American, is duly offed in brutal fashion, targeted by terrorists for the valuable contents of his briefcase and a bustling café is subsequently targeted by a suicide bomber, Ewan’s expertise is called to task from above and he’s effectively provided carte blanche to stop the perpetrators with extreme prejudice.
His M-esque boss Charlotte (a cold and uncompromising Charlotte Rampling) sends Ewan off the radar and it’s not long before he’s indulging in Jack Bauer style bloody retribution to piece together the jigsaw. Up to this point, Cleanskin sits firmly ensconced in the conventional thriller camp, a Spooks for the big screen if you like. So, when Hajaig suddenly abandons Ewan’s story to focus on Ash’s indoctrination and radicalisation back story six years prior, the tone shifts noticeably.
Ash is portrayed as a westernised, intelligent law student, who drinks, parties and has a beautiful girlfriend Kate (the delectable Tuppence Middleton). However, his head is soon turned by a radical preacher Nabil (Peter Polycarpou) and it’s not long before Ash abandons his lifestyle to pursue another, more menacing path. Whilst this back story provides interesting context, Hajaig perhaps dwells too long on the hows and the whys of Ash’s journey.
As the narrative somewhat unevenly flits back and forth between Ewan’s simplistic kill mission and Ash’s increasing extremism, Hajaig hints at the emotional uncertainty that envelops them both along the way. A botched hit forces Ewan to waver, whilst Ash’s involvement in a visceral assassination reveals that he still possesses a semblance of understanding of the differences between right and wrong. When he chances upon Kate once again, Ash softens, but ultimately remains steadfast. This continued indecision results in palpable tension throughout as it’s never quite clear where the players’ emotions will lead them.
With Ewan closing in on Ash, there is still time for a conspiratory twist to upset matters, with the collusion of higher powers threatening to disrupt his mission, which as it transpires was never as clear cut as he had supposed. The terse and satisfyingly bloody denouement utilises an effective voiceover narrative that emphasises the continuing struggle against terrorism, carrying a clear message that the death of a terrorist doesn’t equate to the death of the wider terrorist threat.
Whilst Bean rarely stretches himself in what is ostensibly the lead role, this film really belongs to Geleya, whose credible and emotive portrayal of Ash is the highlight. Middleton’s turn as Kate suggests she has a very bright future, whilst Rampling is a pleasure as always. Meanwhile, Hajaig’s insistence on pursuing a dual narrative along multiple timelines means the flow of the narrative is disrupted to an extent and it’s apparent that the editors should have been encouraged to take a more active role.
Produced on a micro budget, it’s no surprise that Cleanskin isn’t the slick thriller that some might expect. Yet Hajaig’s decision to instead focus on the human fallout of terrorism ensures the end product is the richer for it. It’s an absorbing, smart and insightful study that delves into one man’s journey to terrorism whilst exposing the emotional ramifications that terror leaves behind.