Capable performances battle an outlandish script in a Tamil legal drama that gets soapier as it goes.
This review of Ponmagal Vandhal (Amazon Prime) is spoiler-free.
There’s a lot to like about first-time director J. J. Fredrick’s Ponmagal Vandhal, which is now streaming on Amazon Prime. Chief among them is the cast, comprised of veteran Tamil performers that help to anchor this increasingly outlandish legal drama in the realms of serious dramatic film. It’s a handsome, well-shot affair that moves through its two-hour runtime at a respectable clip. These things, though, are constantly at war with a screenplay (also by Fredrick) that can’t help but succumb to its worst impulses, abandoning a focus on a heinous criminal case to instead get too twisty and turn-y for its own good.
The crimes are those of Jothi, a notorious abuser and killer of children who was gunned down by the police after a shootout captured on damning CCTV footage. But a father-daughter team of legal eagle do-gooders, Venba (Jyotika) and Pethuraj (K. Bhagyaraj), insist she’s innocent, much to the consternation of take-no-prisoners lawyer Rajrathnam (Parthiban), who represents the father of one of Jothi’s victims. It’s a classic tale of fighting the good fight in a lost-cause case that the public has already made up their minds about, and specifically, at least at first, about how taking the temperature of that public is as much as a factor in investigations and prosecutions as facts and logic.
But Fredrick, obviously capable but perhaps in need of someone to temper his impulses, quickly gets carried away, much to the detriment of Ponmagal Vandhal, which would have fared better as a more straightforward interrogation of the legal system and a culture that treats heinous crimes as entertainment. His film swiftly becomes the kind of soapy, melodramatic entertainment it’s decrying, abandoning procedure and precedent for sharp swerves and appeals to emotional understanding that are entirely contrary to the facts over feelings attitude the drama boasts about having.
All isn’t lost, however, since on a technical and performative level Ponmagal Vandhal works as well as it needs to, even if its tale of a courtroom battle is consistently overshadowed by its most indulgent elements being at war with themselves.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.