The holiday season has proven over the decades to be a lucrative time for cinematic adaptations of the works of Charles Dickens. Not coincidentally, the concurrent Hollywood award season has bestowed blessings upon past versions of Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol, to name a few of the author’s classic novels.
Slumdog Millionaire has been anointed the best picture of 2008 by several major critics’ groups, and Oscar nominations seem more than likely. While it isn’t based on a Dickens book, it owes a lot to the master. A cross between Oliver! and Salaam Bombay, it depicts a former street urchin’s eventful rise to the upper ranks of society thanks his to unlikely success on a TV game show. Only the location is unique, with the story playing out in Mumbai and other parts of India rather than merry olde England.
À la Dickens, there is no shortage of orphans, child-exploiting opportunists, prostitutes, abusive government agents and lower-class citizens pining for social achievement in Slumdog Millionaire. While one can’t deny the engrossing technical accomplishments of director Danny Boyle, editor Chris Dickens (any relation?) and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle as they weave their tale — which is actually based on Vikas Swarup’s novel Q&A — there’s a familiarity about the story and characters that makes the film utterly predictable.
We are reminded so frequently of how pre-destined the lifelong love is between Jamal (the rather dull Dev Patel) and Latika (similarly pretty-but-bland Freida Pinto) that it drains any suspense from the latter part of the film. In the same fashion, viewers are virtually guaranteed of Jamal’s climactic win on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? long in advance because we are repeatedly told “It is written.”
Anil Kapoor gives the best performance in the film as the game show’s host, a Regis Philbin-from-hell who is the most complex character in the script. With its colorful style and happy ending, Slumdog Millionaire is emerging as an audience-pleaser as well as an obvious critics’ darling. Just don’t go see it thinking you’re going to be told an original story.
UPDATE: Slumdog Millionaire is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.