Film review: Slumdog Millionaire
Danny Boyle's feelgood Oscar-winner lacks the depth to be a true classic, says Fred Rowson
There's been a lot written about how this year's Best Picture nominees aren't all that good, which just goes to show what a short memory most people have when it comes to this sort of thing. Sure, there aren't many truly dreadful Best Pictures but, then again, genuine masterpieces like The French Connection are always going to be in the minority against films like Crash, Life Is Beautiful and Forrest Gump - all of which find a touchy subject and deal with it as tactlessly as possible. Life is, indeed, beautiful or, at least, it has to be if you want to get nominated for Best Picture. Slumdog Millionaire would arguably toe the same line as the above examples, were it not for its fearless portrayals of cruelty and torture in its first half. Regardless, its overall tone is still questionable, but even if it were an absolute abomination (and it is not) it would still be worthy of praise for being a British film, shot for next-to-nothing in India with a cast of unknowns (although you may recognize Irrfan Khan from The Darjeeling Limited and A Mighty Heart) that has been nominated for Best Picture.
The film tells the story of Jamal (played with studied incomprehension by Dev Patel), who appears as a contestant on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? in order to try and be seen by the girl of his dreams who, throughout his life, he has pursued only to have her disappear at the last moment. The structure hangs, engagingly, on Jamal's recollections of moments throughout his life in which he learns an answer to a question he is then asked on the show. David Denby in the New Yorker faulted this for being unrealistic, but it seems to me that any winner on a game show such as that would have had moments in their lives in which they had discovered an answer to the questions asked. Except most people's recollections would involve reading a book, rather than cheating tourists at the Taj Mahal or convincing a blind boy that he is being given a hundred dollar bill. All of this is conveyed with panache; the colours are soaked in red and yellow, the camera tilts crazily and shots aren't so much cut as maniacally slashed. It's very assured, and it's very good.
The film is, however, not without its problems. When Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited was released in 2007, it was claimed by many to be a comic book portrayal of India, due in no small part to its American protagonists. This criticism is a little unfair but, that aside, if Anderson's film was Tintin goes to Mumbai, then Slumdog Millionaire is no better; the grit of the slums is shown as boldly as the ruthlessness of kidnappers and gangsters, but none of these things have much invested in them beyond being an exciting backdrop against which Jamal's story should play. There is never any investigation into the real extent of life's difficulties in the ghetto, and the gangsters, who have an entire subplot devoted to them, are entirely one dimensional, changing their minds and personas with little warning in order to suit the story's flow; if the one element of Jamal's life that hasn't come into place is that his would-be girlfriend is still being held prisoner, her jailor will have an inexplicable change of heart and release her.
Slumdog Millionaire's financial success hangs on a marketing campaign that prepares audiences for an experience akin to that of Love Actually or, perhaps, something even a little less sophisticated. It's all in the big, bold single colour font on a white background that is the movie's poster. It has been remarked that what audiences will get is a lot darker than that, and this is true. It is, however, an unfair assessment of Slumdog Millionaire. Because it neglects to mention that what audiences will also get is an expertly structured plot, and a consistently well thought out depiction of that plot, whether in the cinematography, or in the acting. Slumdog Millionaire is, if not The French Connection, then a million miles better than Crash. And Life Is Beautiful. And Forrest Gump.