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From Across the Pond: BBC America's "Britz"

In its best moments, television has the ability to bring alternative perspectives right into our living rooms, allowing us to live vicariously through the lives of Others. At times, television can inform, spur to action, and teach us about the pain and suffering of others around the world.

BBC America's provocative new mini-series Britz, written and directed by Peter Kosminsky (The Government Inspector, White Oleander), falls into that category. Britz, which originally aired on Channel 4 in the UK last year, charts the relationship between two siblings caught in the cross-fire between the British government's war on terror on their own private lives as British-born Muslims as they suffer disillusionment after 9/11 and the July 7th bombings in London.

The story is told in two halves, each following the life of one of the aforementioned siblings. In Part One ("Sohail's Story"), airing Sunday, November 30th, the audience meets Sohail (Riz Ahmed), a law student recruited into MI-5 who finds himself torn between his duty to his country (unlike his sister, Sohail considers himself first and foremost British) and that of his religion, as he is forced to spy on those closest to him.

Increasingly forced to choose between his heritage and his nationality, Sohail finds himself under additional pressure to continue to assimilate into mainstream British society and finds himself at odds with his politically-motivated sister Nasima (Manjinder Virk), a medical student prone to organizing protests who finds herself driven towards more radicalized factions in light of several life-changing events.

In Part Two ("Nasima's Story"), airing Monday, December 1st, the gaps in the narrative are filled in from Nasima's perspective and continue to overlap with Sohail's story as Nasima struggles to reconcile her feelings of disllusionment against her belief in the law. When she's detained by authorities after staging a protest outside a police station (following the arrest of her best friend under the Terrorism Act), Nasima finds herself propelled outside her plush existence as a privileged Westerner and into the arms of jihad. It's a remarkable journey to watch her take; when Britz begins, Nasima listens to Western music, dates a black non-Muslim man (Chinna Wodu), and celebrates her right to free speech... but becomes transformed by the racism and hatred she encounters and her moral resolve becomes twisted into vengeance.

Ahmed (Path to 9/11) and Virk (Bradford Riots) are mesmerizing in their diametrically opposed beliefs; each one is so intent on following through on their differing viewpoints that the two siblings, formerly so close, fall apart at the seams far too quickly. Virk has a quiet strength that is impressive to watch but I felt more invested in Sohail's story as he struggles to find his place in an increasingly xenophobic world.

While there is at times an element of mawkish preachiness in the four-hour mini-series, Part One is anchored firmly by Ahmed's cool intensity and the first half of the story unfolds as one might expect from an episode of Spooks or 24: surveillance, SWAT-type teams, rogue investigation, etc. Part Two is inherently more focused on Nasima and matters of the heart and the head; it's much more internalized and less action-focused. Nasima's journey is heartbreaking and controversial, sometimes so much so that it's hard to find her character sympathetic as she heads inexorably towards her fate.

Britz isn't for everyone. It tackles a subject that most of us in post-9/11 America and Britain don't want to confront and would rather forget and raises some rather difficult inner questions along the way. However, Britz is also a hauntingly gripping drama about two siblings, about intolerance and hatred in the modern world, and about how far families can fall apart in times of crisis. It is at times bleak and nihilistic as well as eye-opening but it also strives to show just how symbolic and powerful an embrace can be over a bomb... and how sometimes even that is not enough.

Part One of Britz premieres Sunday, November 30th at 8 pm ET/PT on BBC America. Part Two premieres Monday, December 1st at 8 pm ET/PT.


Anonymous said…
This sounds really interesting. Thanks for the thoughtful review.
Anonymous said…
Sounds really interesting. Thanks for letting me know about it. I'll need to watch this one!
Anonymous said…
I had not heard of this before so thanks for the insightful review. I will definitely be checking it out this weekend.
joy said…
I deliberately didn't read this entry until I was able to watch for myself...

Great review, as always.

ITA that the brother's part *totally* was a Spooks episode. But I have to admit, I was a little hard-pressed to buy the sister's journey.

And as usual, BBC has no qualms with being ruthless with the ending...something that I always find odd in a state-run media.

Still, it was one of those miniseries that you can't say you enjoyed outright - it certainly made me think. And question. Which is never a bad thing, I suppose.

Psst, it also makes me doubly want to visit Canary Wharf next week, even though people keep telling me I don't need to. :-)

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