You don’t need exceptional intelligence or foresight to conclude that Slumdog Millionaire should be the best picture at the Academy Awards or that it will win awards in other top categories. It has already swept all before it at the Golden Globes,the Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA,trusty indicators of Uncle Oscar’s likely choices when his turn comes.
What’s bewildered many of us is why the film fraternity in the US and Britain,at least,have lavished praise and recognition on a good film,not a great one,that tells the story of dirty little brown children?
Reams of critical comment on the film answer that question,but little has been said of the other contenders for best film — Milk,Frost/Nixon,The Reader and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Watch these and you’ll know why Boyle &Co should be perfecting their acceptance speeches. For while the other films echo the sad music of humanity,Slumdog Millionaire resounds with A R Rahman’s lilting,uplifting music in the midst of Mumbai’s violent slum life.
The four other films see outstanding performances by Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon,Sean Penn in Milk,Kate Winslet in The Reader and Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. All have been nominated for Best Actor/Actress,a category that has eluded Slumdog Millionaire.
The films tell remarkable stories of personal tenacity which raises the characters above their tragic flaws or circumstances,a quality they share with Reservation Road,Changeling and Gran Torino,three films also critically received in 2008. But even as they celebrate individual endeavour,at their core,each one has a deep sense of loss,as if the characters misplaced themselves or life itself.
Frost/Nixon replays the encounter between TV talk show host David Frost and Richard Nixon soon after Nixon resigned as American President,once the Watergate scandal had reduced him to just another criminal conspirator. A series of TV interviews pit Nixon,hunched and hurt,with a permanent greyness to him as if Watergate had forever dimmed his existence,against the seemingly flighty playboy,Frost. Nixon is looking to redeem his presidential legacy,Frost to resurrect his fledgling and failing TV career. What happens during the interviews,is of course history.
In Milk,Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk,the forty-something man who opens the doors to the closet and steps out as the first gay in US elected to political office. Milk’s private life and his public battle to gain acceptance,respectability and empower a minority,effortlessly entwine in a braid. His assassination,however,is a grim reminder that acceptance comes at a high price. That the USA is caught up in a battle to give gays the right to legal marriage,places Milk in a contemporary context the other contenders lack.
For instance,The Reader sees Kate Winslet revisit Nazi Germany as Hanna,whose brief,passionate encounter with teenager Michael is punctuated by his reading to her. She mysteriously disappears to resurface in his life years later as an accused at a trial of female SS guards. How Hanna with Michael’s help,seeks to dispel the gloom of her life in prison,is a bittersweet story that can only end one way: sadly.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a curiosity,not least because it ages Brad Pitt in a way that none of his fans will forgive. Based on a Scott Fitzgerald short story,it lives life backwards as Benjamin,born old grows younger as everyone else ages. This is a Forrest Gump type of film where events,people and a fleeting love,twist and turn the young-old man’s story. Fantastic special effects. Benjamin Button leads the Oscars tally with 13??? nominations but it’s disappointing,too long in the telling,it hobbles a bit like the newborn Pitt. Even his good looks cannot reclaim it.
So here we have two films based on true stories (Frost/Nixon and Milk),one on history,The Reader,the last a loose literary adaptation (Benjamin). Each one is the record of a particular individual’s life at a particular intersection of time,not universal themes. Milk asides,they’re about time lost,of growing old with one’s past,sorrowful,elegiac.
Whereas Slumdog is the story of today and tomorrow,exuberant,teeming with the filth of life but all of its possibilities too. It’s youthful,about the promise of the future,not the redemption of a past. It’s that ”what if ” dream we all see behind our closed eyes,a plain,good old-fashioned romance about people — not just an individual — on the margins,moving centrestage,losers who become winners.
Jamal’s fight is for his love,for Latika,not individual success or money. As the world talks of social responsibility,when personal financial advancement seems to be at the public’s cost,Slumdog is about togetherness,belonging and a love money can’t buy. Milk shares these qualities but after 26/11 a film about Mumbai was always going to beat one about San Francisco. The nominated films may share a love of life but while the others are perpetually in the shadow of a threatening darkness. Slumdog has all the joy and lightness of its opening sequence.