More noise than signal

Slumdog Millionaire

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

Being, as I am, a somewhat miserable curmudgeon who lets all negative aspects of anything wash over me like a calming wave of resigned disappointment and ennui, I’m aware that I often allow a more negative tone to creep into my reviews. Allow me to make it clear at the outset, that Danny Boyle’s latest multiple Oscar winning film is a really good film and everyone ought to go and see it.

However, I don’t think that it’s quite as good as its multiple Oscar winning status would imply, to be frank. And so the curmudgeon tide begins, but I’m putting the cart before the horse, or at least the discussion before the setup. The framework for this Mumbai fable is based around the popular television quiz, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. This question is, of course, not quite so compelling a proposition if you happen to live in Zimbabwe.

Appearing in front of host Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor) this time round is Jamal (Dev Patel), a young lad currently working as teaboy in a call centre having grown up from the slums of the city. He goes on a successful run, the answers informed not from great general knowledge but from the lessons his difficult life has taught him, coincidentally enough in chronological order.

Rough break down of structure runs thus – Jamal is asked question in studio. Flashback to grim events of Jamal’s past. Answer question. Repeat. So much for that device, but the heart of the story really lies in Jamal’s past. Growing up as orphans after a sectarian uprising kills their mother, Jamal and elder brother Salim scratch out a rough survival, along the way taking in fellow cast away Latika. They are taken in by a Fagin-esque begging racket, although take a sharp exit after Salim finds out they plan to blind Jamal on the basis that blind kids evoke more pity and thus bring in more money.

The brothers have to leave Latika behind, which sets in place a desire for Jamal to rescue Latika from her life of servitude while Salim will find himself heading off down a path that winds up in organised crime, over the course of events that are best left for you to discover itself.

Slumdog Millionaire does a number of things well, and should be applauded for them. Admittedly, one of the main things it will be applauded for is for ‘not being Western’, but the richness and vibrancy of the melting pot that modern Mumbai is shines through on screen and is as much a character in the film as any of the other actors. The seemingly small innovation of moving subtitles closer to the character speaking rather than corralling them into two cramped lines at the bottom of the screen should appease those who don’t like to ‘read’ a film.

The acting from all concerned is affecting and fits the tone of the piece well. It’s important to realise from the outset that this is far more of a fairytale than it is a drama, replete with cartoon villains, Dickensian poverty and credulous, near imbecilic faith in a love that not so much dare not speak its name as just never be explained as Jamal’s childhood crush turns into a quest, or at least a handy linking device.

It’s a ripping yarn, when sat in front of it. It’s well directed, well written, and engaging enough that its conceits can be excused in favour of simply enjoying it. The problems, and none of them are important enough to stop this being a good film, but serious enough to make its eight Oscars something of a mockery, stem from the clear truth that at heart, Slumdog Millionaire says absolutely nothing at all.

What can we take away from this film to think about? That life in the slums is bad, m’kay? I refer you to the point that my esteemed colleague Drew makes about Slingshot in our EIFF podcasts – that life in the slums is pretty horrific can pretty much be assumed rather than dragged out into a feature length statement of the bleedin’ obvious.

By the end of the film, there was quite the inescapable feeling that this film was just a bunch of stuff that happened. Of course, if you’re in a reductionist mood you could say that about any film, but the point I’m getting at is that by the time the credits roll the main characters are just as much strangers to me as they were at the start of the film. Little to nothing is learned about Jamal’s psyche, other than his overriding crush on Latika. He seems less a man forged by his experience than an observer of them, just as the audience is. I can’t connect with that, and that alone makes this a far weaker film than, say, The Wrestler, or Milk, or Frost/Nixon. It doesn’t make it a bad film. It just stops it from being the best film.