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Monday, December 29, 2008

Review: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

* * * *

Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Dev Patel

It’s strange that a movie which begins with scenes of torture, which traces a life of poverty and brutality, can end up being so uplifting, but that’s the magic of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. I didn’t expect to like this movie as much as I did; I figured I’d react in much the same way I reacted to Juno, another movie I didn’t get the chance to see until after it had received a mountain of praise: it’s good, but it’s not that good. Well, Slumdog is that good.

The story is cut up into two threads which will eventually merge. In the present day Jamal (Dev Patel) is a contestant on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, being viciously questioned by the police on suspicion that he’s cheated his way to the million dollar question. As they go through the questions he’s been asked, he explains how he knew the answers, relating the story of his life in the process. This method of storytelling isn’t particularly groundbreaking but Boyle breathes life into it, running many of the flashback scenes at a frenetic pace and a sometimes startling intensity. The present day scenes act not only to break up the story into digestible pieces, but also offer the opportunity to catch your breath.

Jamal has had a hard life. Orphaned at a young age, he and his brother, Salim, live a vagabond lifestyle, having various adventures as they try to survive and make a place for themselves in the world. Latika (played as an adult by Freida Pinto), a fellow orphan, becomes a point of contention between the brothers and the driving force in Jamal’s life. She proves elusive to Jamal, always, somehow, slipping through his fingers. The older they grow, the further away from him Latika seems to drift and Boyle consistently films her to emphasize that distance and the mirage-like facet of her being, showing her reflected in mirrors, through glass which distorts her image – she’s more dream than reality for Jamal.

Though the fairytale romance – with Jamal cast as the pauper turned prince and Latika as the captive princess – is the driving force giving shape to the narrative, underneath the romantic sheen is the harsher reality. The film never looks away from the poverty which surrounds Jamal and the very ordinariness of children playing (and living) in heaps of garbage makes it all the more jarring. As Jamal grows and Bombay becomes Mumbai and globalization takes hold, transforming the skyline with big, modern buildings, the poverty remains. When Jamal and Salim meet again as adults at the top of a building under construction, Salim points to an area of the city below them and states that their slum used to be there. It’s a business district now, a sign of progress sweeping through the city – but with all this progress the people at the lowest echelons of society haven’t been raised out of poverty, they’ve just been moved further to the fringes. Things are just as bad as they’ve ever been; you just have to look for it in a different place now.

This movie reminded me a little of Fernando Meirelles’ brilliant City of God - though Slumdog is about ten times less depressing, perhaps because its ending is less realistic. The optimism of the film’s conclusion works, though, because rather than deriving from material gains (Jamal never seems like he cares much about the money), it stems from the connection between one human being and another, which has no monetary value and which I think everyone can relate to on some level. It’s a fantastical story, but also very human and that’s what makes it so powerful.

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