One of the worst things about being British is having the predisposition to turn on any fellow countryman who becomes successful. In the case of director Danny Boyle, one could feel that even as Trainspotting (1996) enjoyed its considerable and deserved international acclaim, the knives were already sharpening for him – and we still wonder why domestic talent so frequently moves abroad.
Some of the criticism which has been thrown at him can be at least partially justified: after establishing himself as an innovative director with genuine visual flair with both Shallow Grave (1994) and Trainspotting, the commercial misjudgements of A Life Less Ordinary (1997) and The Beach (2000) suggested that a move to the mainstream was not suiting him particularly well. Two low budget sleeper hits, the superbly grisly 28 Days Later (2002) and the charming Millions (2004) reconfirmed Boyle’s critical status, though Sunshine (2007), even with its many positives, was tarnished by a very messy, non sequitur third act.
That last film is a classic example of, for me, where the problem with Boyle’s style of film-making lies. Trainspotting was a hugely episodic affair, but it was a success in spite of its lack of narrative cohesion by its insistence on strong characterization and its sonic and visual innovation, both of which kept the viewer constantly engaged. What the bigger budget films exposed was that the director was not comfortable in handling more conventional storytelling; even the otherwise brilliant 28 Days Later suffered in its well-meaning but unsatisfying final third.
Fortunately his latest film, Slumdog Millionaire, has as its greatest strength the elegance of its construction. The film is framed around the staggered questions of familiar television show Who Wants to be a Millionaire, facilitating the main narrative conceit – that contestant Jamal’s ability to answer the questions being posed results from key events which happened in his life beforehand, rather than broad knowledge. This may sound like one of those annoying Orange adverts that have been going around recently, but what it primarily offers is a simple device in order to tell a story in flashback without losing a mainstream audience’s attention. In doing this, it also allows a more loose and fractured narrative, adhering more to Trainspotting’s episodic structure, where Boyle found his greatest success. Credit must therefore go to Simon Beaufoy’s superb screenplay, which is sure to gain recognition come awards season.
The film has oddly managed to arrive in the public’s eye as something of a soft, cuddly family film – perhaps it is the young cast, the colourfulness of the posters and promotional clips or the presence of what looks to be a standard central cheesy love story – but be clear that this is no easy watch; scenes of violence, torture, murder and mutilation will be enough to convince that this is no Disney film. Visually, Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle pull out all of the stops and employ what seems life the entire spectrum of cinematic trickery in framing the action, at one moment bathed in rich colour, the next a sharp chiaroscuro, offset by returns to the drab surroundings of the police station where Jamal is being questioned. The camera seldom seems to stop for rest, and add to this the frenetic pace of Chris Dickens’ editing and a storming soundtrack prominently featuring the wonderful M.I.A., and what emerges is one of the most exciting, dynamic films this side of the next Paul Greengrass film.
One might call into question why it requires an English director, largely British crew and a British Asian lead actor to tell a story which is ostensibly about India. But this is very much a Western film, and it would be a mistake to view it as anything otherwise: the semi-realist ethic, the use of English as the main language, the British soundtrack, the thankful absence of condescension to Bollywood pastiche, even the use of a globally familiar central gameshow mark this out quite clearly. Thematically, though clearly engaging with life in India’s slums, later on the film concentrates on her burgeoning economic miracle, with call centres and high-rise apartments springing up in the place of shanty towns: this is a film about globalization, and so naturally seeks to look beyond the confines of its own geographical location.
But beyond the realism of some of the film’s content, what is on display is more of a parable-like tale. The phrase ‘it is written’ opens the film, suggesting something mystical, and which allows the rather weak plot to twist and turn beyond the realms of belief without too much cause for complaint; only a truly hardened cynic might find fault. There is every chance, in my mind at the very least, that Slumdog Millionaire could stand as director Boyle’s greatest film – it plays so keenly to his strengths, yet with a tightness of construction which harnesses his unquestionable talents into finally making a mainstream film worthy of everyone’s attention.