By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, November 2, 2012 - 0 Comments
Midnight’s Children is a lavish spectacle that unfolds against half a century of South Asian history with the complexity of a Russian novel and a blush of Bollywood melodrama. Based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by Salman Rushdie, it’s the most sumptuous, and ambitious, Canadian movie you’re likely to see this year. It may also be the least Canadian Canadian movie you’ll see this year. Aside from director Deepa Mehta, her producer/husband, David Hamilton, and the colour of the money from Telefilm Canada, and some crew, there’s nothing
visibly tangibly Canadian about this movie—at least not the lead actors, the characters, the locations, the setting, or the story.
[Since posting this blog, the above preamble provoked a small Twitter tempest. In my first draft, I neglected to specify lead actors. Rushdie pointed out that two of the film's large cast of supporting players, Zaib Shaikh and Anita Majumdar, are most definitely Canadian. Those actors were justifiably outraged. Even after I corrected the oversight, there's been a flurry of tweets accusing me of seeing Canadians as white-only. Offense was taken at the trigger-word "visibly." But it never occurred to me that people would think I was talking about skin colour. What I meant was, if you walked into Midnight's Children cold, without knowing anything about it, from what you SAW you'd never guess it's a Canadian movie. It's about the history of India and Pakistan. My point was never to question the Canadian-ness or the talent of those Canadians involved in making Midnight's Children—just to observe that the film is an eminent example of a Canadian cinema that, in a world of co-pros, now tends to favour non-Canadian stories. ('Cosmopolis,' 'Rebelle, etc.') That may not necessarily be a bad thing. But there's a complex discussion to be had (not here) about the extinction of a traditionally "national" cinema and whether or not Telefilm should fund Canadian filmmakers regardless of where their stories are rooted. I don't have an easy answer. And none of this any bearing on my opinion of Midnight's Children, which—if you're still with me—I've tried to hammer out below.]
Writing about Cloud Atlas, another vastly ambitious literary adaptation, New York Times critic A.O. Scott said it’s “by no means the best movie of the year, but it may be the most movie you can get for the price of a single ticket.” Midnight’s Children feels like the most movie you could get out of Rushdie’s novel. With Zhivago sweep, its sprawling narrative spans three generations, six marriages, two surgical abductions, several wars, and political fires that forged three nations: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Painterly tableaux range takes us from the flooded killing fields of Pakistan’s civil war to the rubble of a New Delhi ghetto being bulldozed by the military.
The story begins in India, during the final decades of British colonial rule. A liberal doctor from Kashmir marries a patient after courting her through a hole in a bed sheet held up as a titillating concession to modesty. Settling in Agra, site of the Taj Mahal, they raise three daughters, of whom Mumtaz (Shahana Goswami) marries twice before giving birth to our protagonist, Saleem. Then the narrative finally catches up to the back story—ignited by the fireworks of India’s independence at the stroke of midnight, August 15, 1947, when Saleem is born and switched with another baby. A nurse in the maternity ward, entranced by her revolutionary lover, has the newborns trade place to “make the poor rich and the rich poor.” Saleem, a child of privilege, is given to a poor accordian-playing minstrel named Wee Winkie, whose wife has died in childbirth. Her baby boy, Shiva, is handed over to Saleem’s parents. And with Dickensian symmetry, these two class-crossed males grow up “handcuffed to history,” in the words of Rushdie, who wrote the screenplay and voices the narration for its protagonist.
With diverging destinies of Saleem and Shiva fused to India’s own, the movie propels itself through three-ring circus (binder?) of history, romance and magic. Deepa Mehta does a fabulous job of shooting this Cirque du Salman. She balances a terrific ensemble of actors who are seductive and strong. She weaves Rushdie’s busy tapestry with virtuosity and passion. And her film is beautifully crafted. There are, in fact, many good reasons to see Midnight’s Children. And for lovers of the book, it may bring the story’s elements magically to life. But the movie lacks the elegance, and coherence, of Mehta’s Oscar-nominated Water, which benefited from a simpler story and strong heroine. In Midnight’s Children, a tale of male rivalry, the female characters lack depth. And the narrative becomes is so farflung it’s hard to know where to invest our emotions. Continue…