2008 | Director: Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) | Writers: Simon Beaufoy (Screenplay), Vikas Swarup (Novel) | Academy Award Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Writing (Adapted Screenplay), Best Cinematography, Editing, Best Score, Best Song (2), Sound Editing, Sound Mixing
Slumdog Millionaire has its share of problems: contrivances abound, especially in an improbable third act; characters change direction at the drop of a hat; and the British-produced film gives an almost damagingly superficial glimpse into life in Mumbai’s slums. Still, it possesses such an incredible vitality—and so intrinsic is its sense of hope—that those failings are made mere specks of dirt on the otherwise-pristine whole of the film. It may be more fairytale than anything profound, but Slumdog is so overwhelmingly excellent on all fronts that it raises the question: why is profound necessarily better?
The movie opens, mid-interrogation, on uneducated orphan Jamal (Dev Patel), who is presumed by Mumbai police to have cheated to reach the final round of India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Jamal slowly unravels for the police the tale—shown by a series of complicated, payoff-heavy flashbacks—of how he came to learn the answers to the questions put forth by the show’s slick host (Anil Kapoor), as well as his motivation for playing—shown through Jamal’s life from childhood, filtered through his relationships with his opportunist brother Salim and, most importantly, the girl who gives his life meaning, Latika (the enchanting Freida Pinto).
Three actors each play Jamal, Salim, and Latika as they grow up in Slumdog, and those nine people are at the heart of why the film works so wonderfully. The child and adolescent actors especially share something in common with those in 2002’s City of God, in that their performances, due to sheer innate charisma, are more convincing than even the finest work by most highly-trained adult actors. The kids react to moments both joyous and life-shattering with almost reflexive expressions of natural emotion, a testament to Danny Boyle’s near-perfect direction. His camera roves over some of the worst slums in the entire world and still manages to fill the screen with vibrancy and color, all provided by the enduringly hopeful people who populate his Mumbai.
Slumdog skirts with ideas of redemption, the bonds of family, and most tellingly, fate vs. free will; but at its heart, the film is purely an earnest, unapologetic love story about three people set adrift by life’s unending travails, buoyed by dreams of escape to a better existence, and brought back together by one boy’s perseverance. Boyle’s vision of Mumbai may lack realism, but you’d be hard pressed to find a movie more undeniably alive.
Rating: Four and a Half of Five Stars