Wednesday 22 September 2021

Dangerous liaisons: "Copilot"

They've gone with Copilot, but the makers of this German drama could equally have plumped for The Terrorist's Wife, much as the cinema has previously given us The Astronaut's Wife and The Zookeeper's Wife. Co-writer/director Anne Zohra Berrached here offers a speculation informed by the lives of those Antonia Bird's TV movie The Hamburg Cell kept offscreen: the women who crossed paths with the 9/11 hijackers before they passed into infamy. A very teasing lead-in plays mechanical whooshes and screaming over a black screen before opening onto a funfair, where suggestible med student Asli (Canan Kir) - daughter of Turkish immigrants, thrillseeker of an ordinary kind - first crosses paths with brooding Saeed (Roger Azar), a frustrated trainee dentist. (The frustration, he reveals, follows from his belief that German people never smile, rendering his work semi-pointless.) For the next hour or so, we could be watching any other summer romance blossoming: only a leavetaking note delivered in the closing minutes positions Copilot as Goodbye, First Love with a bodycount. Asli and Saeed progress from waltzers to beach to bedroom; there's some cute business in a phone booth as the couple break news of their engagement to his parents, and even some Romeo-and-Juliet-type tension around Asli's guardians, who prove far less enthused that their charge has taken up with an Arab. Yet the light gradually dims, and we know from history that a certain September is looming on the calendar: there is no future in this relationship, and there will be a whole lot of suffering besides.

Like the recent New Order, Copilot is headed in one direction, and it can't really surprise us once its coordinates are set. (You nod gravely as Saeed abandons dentistry in favour of taking flying lessons.) Yet Berrached does at least trouble to engage us, in part through canny casting: her leads are photogenic but capable, and worthy of extended study. Azar's Saeed is a shapeshifter: long-haired in some scenes, clipped in others, sometimes bearded, sometimes boyish, sporadically attentive, but often distracted or distant, his eyes on another horizon altogether. Here is a mystery our heroine fails to figure out until it's too late. Kir, for her part, lends Asli a credible softness, snuggling up to that boundary where pliability meets liability - until she, too, begins to shift shape amid the film's deft coda, where she finally realises the situation she finds herself in, and what this means going forward. Berrached is strong on this tale's interpersonal aspects: a trip to Lebanon articulates just how much Saeed has withheld from his own family (and how much that family hopes Asli might be the one to reveal more), while isolated scenes allow associates to spot what Asli's getting into - at the very least, a liaison with an emotionally unavailable man. Sometimes Copilot lapses into crassness. As with a cut from the lovers in bed to a corpse being dissected, Saeed's anti-Semitic rant in a maternity ward (complete with background baby wailing) suggests Berrached doesn't quite trust her own better instincts; she's caught forcing the drama, where subtext would suffice. (I flashed back to the Dardennes' Young Ahmed, which entered similar territory with a steadier hand.) And I'm not sure what a film like this can ultimately say, beyond "terrorists keep secrets" and "mistakes were made". But in her stronger sequences, Berrached does succeed in putting us in the shoes of those who were left behind in the first days of September 2001, and setting us to wondering and worrying alongside Asli. Just how much could these terrorists' loved ones know? And how far would we be prepared to travel with the Saeeds of this world, were we to find ourselves in a comparable situation?

Copilot is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema, the BFI Player and the Modern Films website.

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