Slumdog Millionaire: Film Review

Directed by: Danny Boyle, Runtime: 120 minutes
Grade: A-

From hard-hitting drug drama with Trainspotting to fanciful 2001-esque science fiction with Sunshine, Danny Boyle has taken a liking to adorning a chameleon's coat with his directorial talent. Now, he's given the world Slumdog Millionaire, a delightfully poignant romance that paints the gloomy corners of Mumbai with a rich, evocative palette. Glimmers of his past work let out a few gasps from underneath this fresh piece of work -- more so than Boyle's foray into outer space -- yet there's a vibrant, new-fangled sort of sprawling humanity underneath its tempo of culture shock and doe-eyed emotionality that constructs it into a stand-out achievement from the director.

Similar in structure and palette to Fernando Meirelles' masterful Brazilian drama City of God (Cidade de Deus), Boyle's Academy award-winning adaptation of the novel "Q & A", written by Indian author and diplomat Vikas Swarup, weaves around a disjointed time structure in telling its whimsical story. It takes us through the slums of Mumbai (former Bombay), India through the eyes of Jamal (Dev Patel), leading us through his life as a young thief and con artist towards his low-key yet stable job as a chaiwala, or a call-room waiter, in his teenage years. That hopeful evolution from crime to normalcy isn't the reason why we're paying close attention to his story, though. Jamal has been detained under police custody for suspicion of fraud on India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire", marked by hard-pressing tactics from the officers aiming to discover how he could know the answers to some very difficult questions that even doctors and lawyers can't remember -- and not know that Ghandi's face is on the front of a one-thousand (1000) rupee note.

Jamal's answer to the police inspector, played wonderfully by The Namesake and The Warrior star Irrfan Khan, is about as straightforward and blunt as his life has been up until that point: whenever he's asked a question that he can answer, he answers it. Part of the appeal behind Slumdog Millionaire is this reactionary rhythm underneath its poeticism, one that shows us how he and his brother, Salim, survived as vagabonds from the streets of Mumbai to the grounds of the Taj Mahal on their ever-vigilant instincts. It showcases the evolution of these two children in a harsh setting -- stunningly photographed by 28 Days Later ... and Last King of Scotland cinematographer Anthony Mantle -- as they slowly grow into different creatures, one of cutthroat entrepreneurship and the other with a romantic's heart. It's hard at first to take sides between the young boys when you take their live-or-die poverty into consideration, but the decision gradually becomes clear as Salim soaks deeper into his self-oriented violence and Jamal grows even fonder of Latika, the third "Musketeer" within the young trio.

Without much of a core education, Jamal develops his knowledge of Mumbai based on their experiences as they coast from India's outreaches on a search of prosperity. This gives Boyle's adaptation its signature framework, penned by Simon Beaufoy in a way that captures the winding locales with nuance and grace. Instead of learning about the origins of the Colt .45 revolver and the instruments held in the hands of Indian gods in school, he discovers them in unconventional ways through hands-on interaction with the world -- almost seeming like tools that India gives him to be used at a later date. Unraveling the ways that Jamal knows the answers to each question on "Millionaire" is like slicing off layer after layer of the skin covering an apple, revealing the raw freshness of the film's center that we've been dying to sink our teeth into from the beginning. Slumdog Millionaire's structure is admittedly a bit easy, as it seems like each question on the show is conveniently answered in chronological succession with Jamal's life, but the pure magic behind Danny Boyle's storytelling is commanding enough to avoid much doubt about its ease.

Jamal and Latika's stalwart connection through Salim's counterbalancing is what gives Slumdog Millionaire its moving pulse, one animated by a catalog of actors that blends practiced up-and-coming British/Indian stars with real children from Mumbai's streets. Boyle's casting is outstanding here, arguably the make-or-break element behind his picture. Each of his three leads essentially hops across three time periods -- youth, mid-youth, and young adult -- which must blend aesthetic cohesiveness with a fluid chain of emotionality, especially in the case of the touch-and-go relationship between Jamal and Latika. It's more readily obvious to see this refinement in Dev Patel and Freida Pinto's bond as the older incarnation of the couple, one that breathes desperation and natural emotion into the picture, but all of the performances communicate with our romantic whims with a surprising level of breadth and grace.

Jamal's inability to answer the question behind Ghandi and the rupee -- along with being able to answer a question about American currency -- also emphasizes the already-redolent microscope fixed on globalization as a broader momentum in Slumdog Millionaire's simple yet vexing tale. At the center is, of course, the now-fizzled "Millionaire" phenomenon, a cultural draw that brings together the entire city of Mumbai behind Jamal's miracle run. But it also addresses the negative elements behind the spectacle's gravity, namely the greed that clouds the "Millionaire" host (Anil Kapoor) with faithlessness. Hope is a key element within the picture, one that lassos together a culturally outstretching presence with its devotees and denizens to create something surprisingly frank and soulful.

Though there's a wealth of thematic density for us to sort out underneath Slumdog Millionaire's crowd-pleasing aura -- enough to grab a hold of deeper film lovers for a long time to come -- it's the sleek magnificence of its passion for Mumbai and its inhabitants that builds it into a beautiful motion picture, easily one of 2008's best. This mostly stems from an infusion of incredible neo-Bollywood/modern kitsch scoring and, I can't emphasize this enough, impeccable editing work. Both come together to really "wow" cinema lovers in more than a handful of occasions, offering an extra shot of personality to Slumdog's aesthetic that pumps it full of pure vivacity.

The most impressive example, and possibly my favorite point in the entire film, is a poignant scene featuring a traditional Indian dance intermingled within clips of Mumbai's Red Light District. It features a twirling dancer in a dark green room mesmerizing our eyes while the resonant clinging from her jewelry fills our ears, but they're in brief expository shots that grow exponentially longer as Jamal and Salim approach. It's a magnificent scene that has left me repeatedly entranced, reflecting on already-established editing concepts that really nail down the proper mood. Though we all shares our own personal beliefs on individual film's strengths in a certain year, it's hard not to recognize this piece of film-making as having this year's most vibrant and exceptionally conceived mood.

Slumdog Millionaire is a staggeringly beautiful film from start to finish, but it also stays true to natural elements by retaining an affecting despondency present in Mumbai's darker corners to this day. What takes Danny Boyle's film to even another level, however, is its awareness of the audience regarding its potent nature, keeping it emotional without being heavy-handed and insightful without trying to control our thoughts. He wears delicateness well on his directorial talent, showing how he's filtered hits and misses throughout his career into a stream of aesthetically powerful and significant techniques that enhance his already-stellar craftsmanship with human interaction. If Boyle's work continues along this escalation in quality, then there's no telling what he's going to construct after this enormously affecting film.


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