As a general rule, you should never talk about a film you haven’t seen. But The Lady of Heaven is proving a tricky film to catch. Plus whole crowds of people are talking about it without having seen it, so perhaps my joining in won’t do too much harm. Although it sounds like it might be some work of Vatican kitsch, The Lady of Heaven is actually about another religion. A boy in modern-day Iraq loses his mother and through doing so learns the story of Fatima, one of the daughters of Muhammad. And here is where an apparently sweeping historical drama enters tricky terrain.
For not all cinema audiences have taken the film to heart. The citizens of Bradford, for instance, turn out to include a surprising proportion of film critics. Like me, they have not actually seen the film. Unlike me, they have no desire to do so. They already know what they think – and they don’t like it one bit. So if you were tempted to hotfoot it to Bradford to buy tickets and a vat of popcorn, the trip would be in vain. For although The Lady of Heaven hit some of the nation’s cinemas last week, Cineworld has now cancelled all screenings of the film.
The cause of the cancellation was the large crowds of bearded film critics in Bradford, Birmingham, Bolton and Sheffield who turned out to protest against the screening of a film they insist is ‘blasphemous’. Again, it is hard to see how anyone can know a film is blasphemous if they have not seen it. Except that word went round these various local communities that the film portrays the aforementioned Muhammad and his family. A petition calling for it to be banned gathered more than 120,000 signatures. No actual actor plays Muhammad. Perhaps aware of Scandinavian controversies surrounding cartoons of the chap, no actor has taken on the role, perhaps wisely. Though I should have liked to suggest a number of actors for the role – Hugh Grant, for instance.
No, Muhammad’s appearance is apparently conjured by CGI, thus getting around the prohibitions in parts of Islam about portraying the religion’s founder. Yet as so often, this is not enough. Defenders of The Lady of Heaven have pointed out that the film is wildly positive about Muhammad and his many children, not least Fatima. It is fawning, we are told, as though this would placate anyone who likes protesting outside cinemas.
It brings to mind the Jewel of Medina controversy of 14 years ago. This was when a novel written by an American lady sought to portray the beautiful love affair between the elderly Muhammad and his opposite-age-spectrum final bride, Aisha. A number of people went nuts about the book, which turned out to be a sort of slushy romance. The publisher dropped the novel and it became a free-speech issue.
I ended up putting myself through reading the work and came close to contracting Type 2 diabetes as a result. To say that it was uncritical is to understate things. The novel was supine as well as saccharine, but this did not placate those critics who like to ban books they have not read. A small-scale London publisher picked up the novel for publication and his home was promptly firebombed by some bearded literary critics.
Which brings me back to Bradford, where local religious leaders led the original protests outside the local Cineworld. One, dressed for 7th-century Arabia, told a camera crew: ‘My feelings are all over the place. My mind is all over the place.’ That’s for sure. He continued: ‘How can somebody come and attack the beloved wife of the beloved Prophet?’ There followed a lot of ‘peace be upon him’ in Arabic and a lot of confusion about what the film was about, but that’s the way with films you haven’t seen. Other religious leaders in Bradford blamed Shia Muslims (a Shia Muslim helped write the film) and claimed that it was a hate movie inspired by anti-Sunni prejudice. Some protestors aspired to be more up to date in their appeals to self-pity by declaring the film ‘racist’.
It seems Cineworld was unprepared for this meeting place between the 21st and 7th centuries. Perhaps the cinema employees thought of other people who have annoyed the world’s most peaceful religion. Perhaps they thought of the teacher in nearby Batley who was suspended from his job last year and forced into hiding after being accused of ‘blasphemy’ by some local Muslims.
It is to be expected in these free-speech battles that the majority of people will decide that the game isn’t worth the candle, or the firebomb. And while some people might be willing to stand their ground for the sake of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu or Die Hard 2, the reality is that very few people want to risk their lives for a piece of cinema schlock.
Before Cineworld pulled the film, local cinemas were already self-censoring for fear of the mob. A rather scared white guy in charge of the local Cineworld came out days before the official announcement and addressed the mob by megaphone. The blasphemous movie was no longer to be shown in Bradford, he announced. The crowd shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ at this happy news. Some jostled to give him a bigger microphone, the better to broadcast his subjugation. Along with the ‘Allahu Akbar’-ing there was also a number of ‘Takbir’s, which amounts to the same thing. Either way there was much rejoicing. The blasphemous film that no one had watched now cannot be watched. And once again, as with the Batley schoolteacher, the problem will be said to have gone away.
Long-term readers will know I suspect the situation will be otherwise. The free-speech left likes to imagine that chaps like those in Bradford will come around to British norms someday and we should be patient. My own feeling is a good number of them won’t. Still, I accept that this view constitutes a minority in the public square these days, and that the more proper thing to do is to cross our fingers and look forward to Bradford’s being ‘City of culture’ in 2025. Which may sound like a joke, but isn’t.