While tempted to start this review of the Who Wants to be a Millionaire?-centred film Slumdog Millionaire with a much-emulated-yet-ultimately-lazy gag based upon the questioning style of the show, (“How feel-good can a film centred around Mumbai’s slums, incorporating child abuse, prostitution and random acts of violence actually be? a) Extremely b) Highly c)…you get the idea) I’m going to refrain. OK, maybe not…
Director Danny Boyle’s latest feature, based upon the novel Q & A, tells of Jamal (star-in-the-making Rav Patel), a contestant on the Hindi version of the ITV1 series whose run of good luck in answering the questions posed leads to accusations of cheating from the programme makers and the authorities.
As Jamal ponders each question, we are shown in flashback a series of events from his early life which inform the present. What makes the story more interesting is the revelation that Jamal is a slumdog, or slum dweller, one of the poorest inhabitants of Mumbai: his background isn’t unique but the way he got where he is today certainly is.
As Jamal’s questions get harder so do the problems he, his brother Salim and friend Latika face – it’s anyone’s guess how the story is going to end.
The “feel-good” label attached to the film derives from the way Jamal’s life is presented by Boyle. Luck is always on our hero’s side, the cheeky smile on the youngest Jamal’s face (three actors play the role at different ages) seemingly his protection against the problems surrounding him.
The use of rapid-fire montage scenes and up-tempo music power the film along at a rate of knots, barely allowing time for reflection on what’s happening around Jamal.
At the risk of sitting on the fence, the film’s frenetic pace is both its biggest problem and its saving grace. Glimpses of what Jamal is trying to escape from may be brief – the encounter with an old friend in an underpass a stark reminder of what might have been – but too much dwelling on the seamier side of slum life would make this a different film, something 2002’s City of God has been and gone and done already.
Darkness does descend on the film in the story of Salim and it’s credit to Boyle that his downward spiral is threaded throughout the story in such a way that even its conclusion doesn’t detract from the lightness of touch in evidence elsewhere.
Prepare to suspend some disbelief here but also prepare to smile as you realise that Danny Boyle has once again combined independent film making sensibilities with the demands of the multiplex audience to produce an entertaining film that deserves your time.