British director Danny Boyle continues his one-man trawl through cinema genres with the extraordinary Slumdog Millionaire, a beautiful, bittersweet Bollywood take on Dicken’s Oliver Twist.
Adapted by Simon Beaufoy from Vikas Swarup’s novel, Boyle brings his eye-catching visual style and tight narrative hold to the sweeping story of Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), an 18 year-old call-centre worker from the slums of Mumbai who is about to win the top prize on India’s version of the TV game show “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” Just as Jamal is about to hear the final question, the buzzer sounds and the show stops filming for the night. As he leaves the studio, Jamal is arrested by the police and taken to the station to answer even more difficult inquiries from the suspicious chief inspector (Iffran Khan). How could a semi-literate young man from the slums know more than lawyers or schoolteachers? Jamal must be cheating.
The police review the questions he has been asked on the quiz show, and, one by one, Jamal explains how he happened to know each answer. With a simplicity that belies his complicated visual technique, Boyle structures the story so that each time Jamal explains his knowledge of trivia, we get an extended flashback into his life, starting with his childhood in the slum where he and his brother grew up. We see Jamal’s first meeting with Latika (Freida Pinto), who turns out to be the love of his life, and their subsequent capture by a Fagin-like beggar king. After this beautifully acted and photographed sequence, the story switches to the brother's teenage adventures on India's train network, including a funny spell as ad hoc tour guides for dumb white people at the Taj Mahal.
Slumdog Millionaire is a crowd pleaser that takes an old-fashioned story and turns it into something new and exciting, thanks mostly to the quality of the writing, the tremendous performances of the entire cast and Boyle’s uniquely vibrant and arresting direction. Borne along by the momentum of the biography and the tension of the quiz show, Boyle’s film starts astonishingly well and keeps getting better.
There are minor problems, an incongruous gun appears in the third act and there's a noticeable disconnect between the adult players involved in the romance, but Boyle's film more than makes up for these occasional bumps to become something deft and bold, a dazzling film determined to entertain and enthral. The closing credits are topped with a glorious song and dance number, in the Bollywood tradition, that reunites all the players and will send you home with a smile on your face.