The trouble with this adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Booker prize-winning Midnight’s Children, aside from the fact it is a mess and a muddle, is that it goes on and on and on and on. And on. And on. And then, just when you think it has to be over, it goes on some more. If it were up to me, I would charge film-makers for every minute — £1, say; let’s not be greedy — over 90 minutes that I’m kept in the cinema for no good reason. In this instance, as the film comes in at two and a half hours, I think I’m owed £60 (plus VAT and expenses) and I will be invoicing Mr Rushdie directly, as we cannot let him off the hook.
Rushdie has no one to blame for this but Rushdie. Rushdie wrote the script. Rushdie is the executive producer. Rushdie provides the narrative voice-over, which proves useful whenever the film paints itself into a storytelling corner, as it so often does. Rushdie is also, I have noted, on the poster, saying: ‘I am very proud of this film,’ which is a bit cheeky, considering the circumstances and that he owes me £60, plus VAT and expenses. Listen, no one is saying that bringing a 600-page magical realist epic about India’s transition to independence and Partition to the screen would be easy. (Heck, I tried just the other day, and had given up by elevenses.) But sometimes an author is not the best adaptor of their own work, and this is slow when it should be fast, fast when it should be slow, has the worst special effects of all time and fails to marshal its teeming subplots or characters. It is £60 too long, and feels longer. I’m thinking it even feels £96 too long.
As directed by Deepa Mehta, it starts engagingly enough. I will give it that, willingly. It is about two boys, one poor, one rich, who are swapped moments after their birth at midnight on 15 August 1947, the very moment British rule ends. The tale is told by Saleem (the poor boy brought up as rich), who recounts his family’s history to this point, as if he could possibly know, yet I still liked the story of his big-nosed grandfather and how he courted his headstrong wife.
But, more importantly, Saleem (Satya Bhaba) is a very special boy, in possession of magical telepathic powers that enable him to connect with all the other Indian children born on the same day at around the same time. It’s something to do with his big nose that runs like a tap. He twitches it or sneezes and can thereby even summon all these other children to meetings, which means they materialise at the end of his bed via the sort of special effects last seen in Dr Who, 1963, or even Tomorrow’s People. One of these children is the other changeling, Shiva, who, as an adult, is played by Siddharth Suryanarayan, as if he’s James Dean. It is properly strange.
Saleem’s powers should, by rights, be the driving force to the film but here they are only ever incidental. I think, if I hadn’t read the book (albeit many moons ago), I’d have found it hard to figure out what the hell was happening. But, then, everything feels incidental in this. Although the novel deftly enmeshes India’s history within magical allegory, this is a bit of magic here, a bit of allegory there and, now, here’s your bit of history. Nothing is fluid, and as for the characters they never feel like proper characters, with their own inner lives, but mere puppets deployed to suit the action. True enough, it is gorgeously filmed by Ms Mehta, but maybe too gorgeously? Even the slums look like something out of Elle Decoration.
I’d like to finish by saying this is a nice try, even though it’s a failure, but, hand on heart, I just can’t, as it is too flawed, and I’m owed £60, which is no small amount, and makes me cross. Still, on a more positive note, at least I can offer this: ‘I am very proud of this review’ (Deborah Ross, The Spectator).