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Inescapable: Soft Syrian fiction pales before hard Syrian facts

Alexander Siddig in a scene from “Inescapable”

2 out of 4 stars

Written by
Ruba Nadda
Directed by
Ruba Nadda
Alexander Siddig, Marisa Tomei, Joshua Jackson
Canada/South Africa

A quick glance at the premise – frantic father searches for daughter who's disappeared somewhere in the maelstrom of Syria – suggests that Inescapable was ripped fresh from today's headlines.

Sorry, no.

Instead, it hails from a rather more contrived and sedate source: the blunted imagination of writer-director Ruba Nadda. She wants to make a smart political thriller in the mode of Costa-Gavras's Missing, yet the sincerity of her effort keeps getting undermined by the clumsiness of her story. That's bad aesthetic news any time but especially in the current climate of bad Syrian news – this soft fiction pales before the hard facts.

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The fiction begins in Toronto, January, 2011, where the middle-aged Adib (Alexander Siddig) is an affluent businessman with a happy marriage and two grown daughters. His is a classic tale of immigrant success, at least until his oldest girl, on a trip abroad, makes a detour to visit her fathers' native country – there, suddenly, she vanishes. Dad hops a plane to Jordan, hires a cab, greases a checkpoint guard with two bottles of illicit hooch, then approaches the Syrian border in the dark of night. Happily, his crossing is eased by a well-placed bribe and a well-dressed woman who, behind the dark eyeliner and lush black wig, bears a curious resemblance to Marisa Tomei.

Oops, it is Marisa, playing (quite well under the circumstances) Adib's old flame Fatima. It seems that, unknown to his family, the guy has a past both highly romantic and rather dubious – once a member of Syria's military intelligence, he fled the country for mysterious reasons. His return, then, is fraught with danger, although apparently not so dangerous that Adib can't pay a bantering visit to a former buddy still in the intelligence biz, or drop in at the Canadian embassy for a quick chat with a hapless official and our first bout of maladroit exposition: "This is a complicated bureaucratic police state."

That may explain the complicated bureaucratic plot. Pretty soon, all manner of nefarious types are popping up to chase and be chased. Some villains wear regulation uniforms, others are more non-descript baddies toiling for secret cop organizations. A Russian ex-diplomat makes an appearance, plus a potential Israeli spy, along with a state minister who may or may not enjoy the company of young boys. If Syrian internal affairs are a hornet's nest of complexities so arcane as to be incomprehensible, well, this is the perfect yarn.

En route, I'm sad to report that the old flame never heats up to a heart-warming love story (Nadda's specialty in Cairo Time). As for Adib and his search, he's the kind of malleable character who conveniently adapts to his writer's needs at any given moment. Need some pathos? Poor ol' Dad gets beaten to a bloody pulp. How about some heroism? Now the same fellow is a dynamo, kicking butt like a Hollywood action hunk. Speaking of the action, it's as klutzy as the script, and risibly prefaced by a throbbing percussion score that baldly announces, "Exciting fisticuffs to come." And speaking of risible, check out the shamelessly concocted sequence in the morgue. Female corpse under white sheet awaiting identification. Doleful father enters. Happy ending hangs in the balance.

To her credit, Nadda is a solid actors' director – the performances here are competent even when the writing isn't. The exception is South Africa which, although a logistically necessary shooting location, ain't much of a thespian. It does a poor job mimicking Damascus, a shortcoming that the camera's tight shots can't disguise. Still, despite its flaws, I didn't once try to escape from Inescapable – of course, such failures are my job, not yours.

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