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'Cleanskin' review: Sean Bean fights UK terrorism

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Sean Bean in Cleanskin

Everyone from Robert Redford (Lions for Lambs) to Paul Haggis (In the Valley of Elah) and Paul Greengrass (Green Zone) has tried to answer big questions about America's response to 9/11. The box office failings of those films suggests that audience appetite for war on terror as entertainment may be limited, but with Homeland enjoying success on the small screen, is there scope for more exploration of the hot topic subject matter?

This week's new release Cleanskin (starring the always-excellent Sean Bean) puts terrorism in the UK under the microscope. It's an action-thriller that wisely favours character development over sermonising, presenting two men at opposing ends of the ideological spectrum.

Bean plays Ewan Keane, a war veteran and secret service agent who saw friends die on the frontlines and lost his wife in the attacks on London. He's on the trail of a terrorist cell who swipe Semtex from a shady arms dealer in Cleanskin's bloody and brutal opening sequence. Ewan's handlers, played by Charlotte Rampling and James Fox, know that his grief and fury makes him an asset who'll shoot to kill.

Counter to him is cell leader Ash (Abhin Galeya), a smart young Muslim who was turned by extremist Nabil (Peter Polycarpou) while at university. Ash is the 'cleanskin' of the film's title, a terrorist who's flown completely under the radar of security services.

For the most part this is an engaging thriller with strong performances from the two leads. Galeya, formerly of The Bill, delivers a layered turn as the suicide bomber plotting an attack on a high-profile London wedding. His journey from strong-willed student to extremist is recounted through flashbacks as writer/director Hadi Hajaig delves into a young mind that's slowly poisoned. Ash's romance with Kate (Tuppence Middleton) offers him a lifeline, but it's not enough to shake him away from ideas planted by cleric Nabil.

The rounded portrayal of Ash isn't quite replicated in Bean's character, who's a little thinly drawn by comparison. Ewan's background isn't fully realised as the terrorist he's tracking. He's driven by intense anger, but director Hajaig doesn't find enough screen time to explore his motivations.

Ewan's fragile state of mind makes him someone who can be easily manipulated, and this comes into play in the final act as Cleanskin reveals a wider conspiracy involving the terrorist plot. It's perhaps one credibility-straining twist too many for the film, which up until then does a solid job of aping slicker, bigger-budgeted Hollywood thrillers.


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