The first great film of 2019. A visceral, pulse-pounding, frenetic docudrama held together with extraordinary technique by Maras. Imagine, a Hollywood film based on real events that depicts men and women of diversity as honest-to-God real-life heroes.
On November 26th, 2008, 10 members of an Islamic terrorist organization that operated out of Pakistan coordinated an attack in the city of Mumbai, India, that lasted four days. In all, 174 people were killed, as mass shootings and bombings were spread wide across the city, and those actions were condemned globally. The new film depicting the attack on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel could have resorted to the practice of whitewashing its characters or focus on a wealthy American. Instead, the focus is spread evenly among its diverse cast and Hotel Mumbai depicts them as honest-to-God real-life heroes.
Australian Anthony Maras makes his feature-length film directorial debut (after his award-winning work in short films like The Palace). He has a strong supporting team around him, including working from a screenplay from John Collee (Master & Commander), producer Basil Iwanyk (Sicario, The Town, Wind River) cumulating in a film of great emotional intensity and stoicism, that’s reminiscent of Michael Mann without being at the extreme end of stylized filmmaking that is replaced with an intense, frenetic pace and feel. This could have come undone quickly, but is held together with Maras’ strong framing (a scene of Indian officers walking slowly through a smoke-filled hallway is particularly effective) and the cinematography from Nick Remy Matthews (One Eyed Girl) can be visually exciting at times.
The cast is a strong one and is the film’s secret weapon. Dev Patel plays a waiter at the Hotel Mumbai who has a wife, a child, and another on the way. He works for a popular chef Hermant Oberoi (The Big Sick’s Anupam Kher), who has high standards, but a caring heart. Armie Hammer plays David, a hotel patron, who is having dinner with his wife Zahra (Homeland’s Nazanin Boniadi) while their infant child is in their hotel suite with their nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey). Special mention should be given to actors Vitthal Kale and Nagesh Bhonsale, as two police officers who take a small team into the building, against the direct orders of their superiors while special forces were hours away. Patel continues to display a real growth as an actor since his turn in Slumdog Millionaire, particularly in a powerful scene, explaining to a scared and bigoted guest he will take off his religious headwear if it will make her more comfortable, even though he was just directly responsible for getting her to safety. Along with legendary international film star Anupam Kher, who is a veteran of over 500 films, brings a touch of grace to most any of the roles he takes on. Nazanin Boniadi is a standout, as a woman who was raised as a Muslim, now stuck boarded behind locked doors hiding from the terrorists while trying to think of a way to reunite with her family.
Hotel Mumbai is, no question, a hard watch and with the recent terror attacks in New Zealand, this film isn’t for the faint of heart (considering the amount of up-close deaths that are depicted in the film) but that is also not as exploitative as you would think. Maras shoots the film in a way that is blunt and to the point, it doesn’t sugarcoat the atrocities of the gutless attack that day, focusing on how awful these crimes were, even if it combines real events with fictionalized ones and composite characters (Jason Isaacs’ character Vasili is the black sheep here).
Bottom line, in a bleak start to 2019, Hotel Mumbai is the first great film of the year that has an emotional resonance and technical prowess. It’s a pulse-pounding, frenetic docudrama that is held together with the extraordinary technique by the team of Maras and Matthews. This is a Hollywood dramatization that is finally based on real events in a third-world country, featuring a diverse cast that honors their heroic acts and the sacrifices that were made.
M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.