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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Movie Review: Slumdog is a Dark Fairytale - The Best Kind

Slumdog Millionaire is unusual in that it’s a fairytale built on a core of the real misery and struggle that exists in cities like Mumbai. Then again, maybe it’s not so unusual – the Grimm’s fairtytales had some extremely disturbing elements and at a time before urban sprawl and centralized law and order staying out of the forest was probably a wise idea. There is also a trace of Dickensian London, a mass of humanity with different rules for different classes.

Director Danny Boyle shoots everything with bold colors and a panoramic eye, unstinting in the depiction of life in Mumbai slums but never wavering from the focus on character. The aptly named Chris Dickens edits each sequence perfectly so that the movie has a rapid pace but without sacrificing meaning or impact.

The basic premise is hoary: a slum kid makes it to the final round of India’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. No-one can figure out how he can know the answers to many of the questions he gets right so the police question him, often using enhanced tactics that will seem familiar to Dick Cheney.

This device provides a framework to explore the love triangle between slumdog Jamal, his brother Salim, and Latika, a girl from the neighborhood. Unusually it’s Salim and Latika who vie for Jamal’s affections throughout the movie. The three are orphaned at a young age when their families are victims of anti-Muslim violence. It’s a sequence that yanks the film out of distant observational interest and firmly ties it to the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai – it’s nearly too much for the confectionery story to bear.

It does manage the load, helped along by an extraordinary sequence that takes place on a train which is stunning in its visual beauty and storytelling simplicity, all the more so following as it does the darkest most Dickensian vision of a Mumbai orphanage.

The child actors are simply incredible and despite the tragic surroundings of their lives their joy in simply surviving is palpable. Though I always have a little trouble with multiple actors playing characters at different ages it mostly works here.

If there is a flaw it's that the third act feels a little bit rushed and that can diminish the magic (and indeed magical realism) that Boyle aims for. Still, if  great movies show you people and places that you might never get to see ordinarily. Slumdog Millionaire fits this bill perfectly.

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