Mira Nair's thoughtful drama takes a different angle from Zero Dark Thirty on the geopolitical fall-out from 9/11. Whereas Kathryn Bigelow's picture described a manhunt, this is more about the search for a man's soul.
Riz Ahmed convinces as Changez, the well-born son of a Punjab poet who comes to America and is "catapulted into privilege" – an Ivy League education, then a prestigious job as a company downsizer on Wall Street. It all changes after the Twin Towers go down, when being a Muslim in the paranoid aftermath is a cause for suspicion – strip-searched at customs, mistakenly arrested, abused. So much for the Land of the Free.
The story is recounted in flashback by Changez, now an academic back in Lahore, to an American journalist (Liev Schreiber) on the trail of a kidnapped professor. How deeply is this reluctant fundamentalist implicated in anti-American insurgency?
Nair, adapting from the 2007 novel by Mohsin Hamid, draws a terrific performance from Ahmed as the divided hero, mild-mannered then warier by degrees. The story cleverly plots the way his allegiance shifts from capitalism to militancy, hinting that he might be exchanging one sort of fundamentalism for another.
One exceptional scene dramatises a crucial encounter between Changez and the head of a doomed publishing house, played, brilliantly, by Turkish theatre legend Haluk Bilginer. Not all of it is so compelling.
Kate Hudson as a troubled rich girl with a sideline in photo art looks more like a plot device than a character. But Nair keeps an honourable, even-handed line in this moral fable, and delivers her best work since Monsoon Wedding.