Dir: Sadia Saeed. With: Shermin Hassan, Luca Pusceddu, Jeff Mirza, Shazia Mirza. 91 mins. Cert: 15
Here’s another of those homegrown debuts that appears hellbent on snuffing out its own flickers of promise. Writer-director Sadia Saeed has alighted upon a protagonist who may actually be closer in her circumstances to the cinemagoing demographic than most of the heroes and heroines the movies have lionised: Arifa (played by Shermin Hassan) is a frustrated 28-year-old British Asian woman who works in insurance and lives at home with her parents. Yet scenes float by with a weird lack of urgency that doesn’t appear to be a conscious choice, jokes are muffled, and some of the performers fail to convince. Arifa can’t work as comedy, because the material isn’t up to snuff. As character study, it struggles to wring much of note out of a protagonist who may simply be too ordinary to sustain a feature-length work.
The odd thing is that Saeed seems partially aware of this shortcoming, working in scenes in which the heroine’s fumbling attempts at creative writing are offered a no-nonsense critique by her tutor. One of the latter’s observations – “this isn’t a story, it’s a magazine article” – reverberates altogether loudly through the slice-of-life snapshots that follow, yet even a student-rag profile would demand more connective pith than Saeed’s script provides. A naggingly unpersuasive strand involving dad’s illegal tobacco smuggling operation generates less tension than the matter of which unworthy suitor our girl can shake off first. That quandary, in turn, becomes secondary to minor disputes in newsagents and aerobics classes, where Saeed mistakes the mundane for the revealingly quotidian.
By far the film’s strongest suit is Hassan’s bright and likable turn, revealing an inner spark that makes the character less of a pushover than she initially seems, and which may serve this performer well, should she get her hands on more fortified, lived-in writing. A sparse piano score, by Level 42’s Mike Lindup, adds a note or two of atmosphere conspicuously lacking in the dialogue scenes, and cinematographer Giuseppe Pignone collates some not unattractive glimpses of Soho at Christmas and a deserted, out-of-season Brighton. Yet too often what’s going on within these frames registers as humdrum in the extreme: at risk of sounding like that creative writing tutor, it’s the kind of drama one might experience for free walking past an open door.
Arifa screens at the Genesis Cinema, London, this Sunday.