Epic vi­sion on a TV bud­get

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILMREVIEWS - TARA BRADY

MID­NIGHT’S CHIL­DREN ★★★

Di­rected by Deepa Me­hta. Star­ring Satya Bhabha, Sha­hana Goswami, Ra­jat Kapoor, Sha­bana Azmi

12A cert, lim­ited re­lease, 146 mins

Sal­man Rushdie’s Mid­night’s Chil­dren is a grand, sprawl­ing al­le­gor­i­cal take on In­dia’s trou­bled tran­si­tion from Bri­tish colony to mod­ern democ­racy. Its hero, Saleem Si­nai, is one of the chil­dren born at mid­night on Au­gust 15, 1947. His ar­rival at the pre­cise moment of the han­dover leaves him, and oth­ers born at the same in­stant, with su­per­nat­u­ral abil­i­ties.

The 1980 novel is de­fined by magic re­al­ism, a tone that sel­dom sits com­fort­ably on the big screen. And the film of the book is de­fined by voice over, pro­vided by the au­thor him­self, as a des­per­ate, bridg­ing de­vice across the source’s many set­tings.

Bud­getary con­straints tell through­out Deepa Me­hta’s adap­ta­tion. The di­rec­tor and her cin­e­matog­ra­pher, Giles Nuttgens, keep their tableaux close and their fram­ing closer, but clever de­sign can’t atone for the lack of grandeur. Ev­ery crowd scene looks like too few ex­tras throw­ing Peter Shilton-sized shapes; ev­ery ac­tion se­quence is un­com­fort­ably boxed.

It doesn’t help that the screen­play, by Rushdie and Me­hta, is far too in­clu­sive and ref­er­en­tial to­ward a source text that re­quires slash­ing and prun­ing into an X-Men: Cal­tech Class shape if it’s ever go­ing to work as a movie. Many have pointed to­ward the close involvement of the au­thor, with some wags sug­gest­ing that he even wrote the mu­sic.

To be fair, Rushdie’s nar­ra­tion is plenty en­ter­tain­ing and pro­vides enough in­ci­dent to keep us in­volved for a siz­able 146-minute du­ra­tion. The cen­tral per­for­mances are charm­ing, the in­ter­gen­er­a­tional soap opera (two boys, one rich, one poor, swapped at birth, etc), is strong and, as a primer for 20th­cen­tury In­dian his­tory, Mid­night’s Chil­dren pro­vides a fine set of cheat notes.

More than 30 years af­ter the book’s publi­ca­tion, Rushdie’s anger over Indira Gandhi’s “Emer­gency” has lost none of its po­tency. It’s enough fire to keep Mid­night’s Chil­dren warmed up when, un­hap­pily, the his­tor­i­cal ma­te­rial and epic source de­mand to blaze across the screen.

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