This was not an enjoyable experience.
I made the mistake of going to see Hotel Mumbai with my girlfriend for date night after dinner last Saturday. I didn’t know much about the movie going in, but this is definitely not a date night kind of film. We were both a couple of wines deep and were sobbing our eyes out for pretty much the entire thing. That in itself doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad movie. I don’t think there are many people who would say they “enjoyed” Schindler’s List or Sophie’s Choice. Importantly though, just because Hotel Mumbai elicits an emotional response doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great movie either.
The film tells the true story of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008 and focusses on the siege of the Taj Mahal and the experiences of certain (fictional) staff and guests. It follows the attack from the perspectives of a hotel waiter (Dev Patel), a wealthy American couple (Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi), their Australian nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), a Russian businessman (Jason Isaacs) and the five terrorists themselves.
A lot of the emotional impact that comes from this film is found in the brutal and unapologetic showcasing of the terrorists wantonly shooting innocent guests and staff. That’s undoubtedly the intention of the director; to create as real and authentic a portrayal of the events of 2008 as possible and for the audience to feel the horror as if they were there themselves and there are moments of definite tension and pace. The only problem with this approach is that, despite the visceral brutality and violence of the film, Hotel Mumbai follows almost exactly the same plot lines and structures as any other Hollywood hostage film, whether it be Die Hard, Air Force One or White House Down. In many ways, given the subject matter, I think this was an inappropriate way to go about it.
The difference is that that those movies are action packed popcorn movies designed to entertain. This is far too graphic and violent and real to be considered in that same genre, so what results is a confusing experience where the audience is torn between going along with the thriller action aspects of the plot and being horrified at the brutal and terrifying reality that it’s portraying.
To give the film some credit, there is some subtle and clever juxtaposition between the menial problems faced by the characters prior to the attack (the overcharging of a meal, whether or not the baby is hot enough to call the doctor), and being suddenly thrust into a situation where they could instead be shot at any moment. The film also makes a nice point of how in such situations, life and death can come down to the tiniest and seemingly insignificant decisions. One particularly poignant moment is where Dev Patel’s character Arjun sees the dead body of the waiter who had been shot while serving the party that Arjun himself had repeatedly requested to serve at the beginning of their shift.
The characters as a whole aren’t developed well. In particular, the romance between David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) is irritating and sappy, unnecessarily shifting the tone from one of brutal realism to cliche Hollywood flashbacks.
Annoyingly, the perspectives of the terrorists themselves are scarcely touched upon. This is a shame, since some of the most interesting and insightful moments of the film feature the motivations and internal dilemmas of the gunmen. For instance, the men have no qualms about shooting innocent civilians in the name of Allah, but are morally and spiritually unable to reach into a dead girl’s bra to find her ID. I think it would have done the film well to explore this sort of thing a little more.
Despite its real life, horrifying source material and it’s best intentions, the only real difference between Hotel Mumbai and the other action blockbusters I mentioned earlier is the excessive violence which at times borders on manipulation. I was horrified and I cried, but blatantly dousing the audience with graphic violence isn’t in itself good filmmaking. This isn’t a terrible film, but it’s certainly not as deep and profound as it thinks it is either.
By Jock Lehman