Danny Boyle delivers again with “Slumdog Millionaire,” his Charles Dickens impression set in modern-day India. “Slumdog” explores how a poor orphaned boy, Jamal Malik, can go from wandering the streets with his brother, living off theft, to answering trivia questions for 20 million rupees on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”
In the opening of the film, Jamal is being tortured and interrogated about how he cheated and managed success on the game show. “Doctors and lawyers get stumped on the 60,000—how can a slumdog make it this far?” asks the inspector, whose interrogation of Jamal triggers flashbacks that reveal how Jamal came to know what he does.
This rags-to-riches tale dodges all clichés one would expect from an inspirational celebration of life, love, destiny and hope. The love story is founded in friendship and acknowledges the power of the strong feelings of young people. The film is not naïve, either. It’s rough and violent, not sparing any of the grotesque vs. often-beautiful aspects of the dual nature of India.
Danny Boyle (“Sunshine,” “The Beach”) is at the height of his powers. Having not seen “Trainspotting,” I would say that this is Boyle’s best film. For the past two decades, he has made exceptional films in drastically different genres made great by his distinctive style and sure hand. He single-handedly reinvented zombies (but don’t call them that) with “28 Days Later,” and this triumph trumps even that. More in the vain of his 2004 gem “Millions,” Boyle knows how to paint a portrait of young people forging their own existence in an adult world.
Boyle owns the film. As an auteur, it is quite literally his, and it’s easy to tell that the final product would be much weaker without him. Complementing the great story and solid performances, Boyle brings his directorial trademarks to complete the puzzle. The editing is quick and clever, but never jarring, switching between the game show, the interrogation and Jamal’s past.
The inventive cinematography features many shots of the beautiful Indian setting and displays unique and creative camera movements and placement. But my favorite part of Boyle’s touch is his uncanny ability to set music to a film. His choices again are flawless, and a musical choice he makes for a scene taking place on a train was particularly bold and awesome.
The acting is solid from all thesps. Particularly well done was the seamless aging of the three main characters through the flashbacks. All the actors seem like the same character as their older or younger portrayers and even resemble them somewhat. Irfan Khan delivers a solid supporting turn as does the inspector who knows he must do his job but also reacts with the sympathy and friendliness of the audience.
This film is 21st century Dickens. It follows orphaned kids from the slums to a shot at riches from their own point of view. It offers contemplation on the power of will and forces of destiny. Because it creates its own world so convincingly, I was willing to buy some of the further-stretched parts of the plot that other reviewers may not. Oh, and stay for the credits for a particularly charming sequence.
The real triumph of “Slumdog” is that it manages to be both a feel-good and a great film. It’s a crowd pleaser: a celebration of life and love that should find a large, diverse audience and grant it success at both the box office and awards shows. It’s basically this year’s “Juno,” except not quite so tragically overrated.