I’ll never forget coming out of the cinema after seeing Shallow Grave and thinking: “At last! A British movie to be proud of!” Danny Boyle’s debut feature was the first in a string of bold, confident movies that have spanned different writers, actors and genres but have maintained a number of very un-British attributes: they’re fast-paced, thrillingly-scored, beautiful to look at, unashamedly emotional and — with a few exceptions — loved by audiences worldwide. There are also a number of recurring tropes: urban chases, unexpected windfalls, sinister authority figures and bodily fluids, all of which make Slumdog a virtual Now That’s What I Call Danny Boyle.
Most British critics of the movie have seemed somewhat grudging in their praise: The Guardian called it “wildly silly but perfectly watchable”, while The Independent said, “I’m not sure it’s a great movie, but it’s a great audience movie”, as if the two are somehow incompatible. But here’s what I think they’re saying: it made them cry. Most British critics seems to have a horror of admitting the emotional power of art, whether in the gallery, the cinema or even on television. They’re happy to tell you the theme of the piece, to analyse the acting or to pull the script apart, but God forbid that they should tell you it affected them somehow. This is not, of course, anything particularly new: Dickens was dismissed as sentimental by many critics of the time. But it is unhelpful, and it inhibits a proper response to the work.
Because Slumdog Millionaire is pure emotion. As its writer, Simon Beaufoy, says: ‘Something strange [was] happening to my writing. The usual, mealy-mouthed English nuance and subtext [was] being replaced by something bordering on melodrama. What use subtext in a city of such total extremes? Nuance doesn’t stand a chance in the car horn symphony of a Mumbai traffic jam … Tonally it really shouldn’t work. In any other city in the world, I suspect it wouldn’t work. But in Mumbai, not for nothing known as Maximum City, somehow I [got] away with it.” Slumdog gets away with it triumphantly. Moving effortlessly from pathos to horror, from slapstick to shock, the film is a slap in the face to the stiff upper lip; I heard the audience I saw it with laughing, sobbing, gasping with suspense.
But the film delivers on an intellectual level too. At its heart are two love stories: between Jamal and his brother Salim, and Jamal and his sweetheart Latika. Jamal and Salim represent two opposing approaches to the world: Salim’s is “take care of the money and the rest will follow”, whereas Jamal’s is “love will conquer all”. While no-one familiar with Boyle’s work will be surprised by the outcome, the story is more nuanced than this might suggest. There’s no romance to poverty in Slumdog Millionaire, and you’re left in no doubt about the brutality of life in the slums. But ultimately, absolutely, it’s uplifting, a hard-won happy ending that’s satisfying, bittersweet and — yes — made me cry.