Full disclosure: filmmaker Anthony Maras and I have been friends since the release of his last short film The Palace. I have anxiously awaited the release of his latest film, hoping for the production, the film and Anthony's ongoing success. I wanted to lead with that information to also let you know that if I didn't feel so compelled to write about “Hotel Mumbai,” and especially if I didn't like the film, it would have been doubtful that you would have heard anything from me.
You will just not believe that “Hotel Mumbai” is the work of a debut filmmaker. Director Anthony Maras delivers an agonising dramatic rendering of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India. The film focuses on the siege at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and the guests’ frantic attempts to survive a methodical and ruthless march of occupying terrorists. Writers John Collee and Maras steadily immerse the audience into a pulsating city. Hundreds and thousands of people on the grinding commute. The guests of the prestigious Taj are in a haven from the congested streets, the sweaty public transport, and the steaming street-side food stalls. A group of young men make their way into the city via boat, through the pollution soup of the river. They journey to tactical locations for a coordinated attack at nightfall, using the ensuing panic to escape to gain access to the Taj.
Guests include Armie Hammer, playing American architect David; Nazanin Boniadi playing David’s famous wife Zahra, and they're joined by Tilda Cobham-Hervey's Australian au pair Sally. Hammer's David conveys such assertion, charm and helplessness, considering that this physically imposing figure means nothing faced with the ruthless efficiency of automatic weapon fire. Boniadi will tear your heart out, yearning to be reunited with her daughter. Cobham-Hervey is part of the film’s most emotionally excruciating scene. Jason Isaacs plays wealthy Russian playboy Vasili. Isaacs has a world-weary swagger that was genuinely infectious. He’s the island for a necessary human in the face of death. Dev Patel plays Arjun, a member of the enormous service team for Anupam Kher's Hemant Oberoi, the Executive Grand Chef of the Taj Mahal Palace. Patel is graceful in his care; while Kher’s magnetic presence is the salve for the trapped staff’s pursuits to save as many guests as possible.
Cinematographer Nick Remy Matthews creates clarity and texture that gives you the grit of the city, the sanctum of the Taj and the collision of those two elements as the film progresses. There’s a seamlessness to the aesthetic; you’d really never know that Hotel Mumbai wasn’t wholly shot partially on location (a lot of the Hotel interior locations were shot in Adelaide). Maras and Editor Pete McNulty create tension bordering on hyperventilation as they deftly switch between the casual cruelty of the calculating young terrorists and the survivors hidden in the warrens of the hotel maze.
The essential critical readings of the film ask why? What is Maras' and co-writer Collee’s political intent with the film? For all of the riveting human drama, for all the explosive and horrifically accurate depictions of violence, what are Maras and his team trying to say? To which, I would pose the other question. Why does it have to be? This is an account of the very best and worst aspects of humanity as they are.
When “Hotel Mumbai” ends, it leaves you in a state of disbelief and silence. Had it not been for the fact that it was the Australian premiere and director Anthony Maras' home-town hero's welcome screening, and the sustained seven-minute standing ovation swelled from a patter into a steady roar, that I was drawn out of that harrowing event.
When I saw Maras' short film “The Palace,” I called it "one of the most emotionally effective and powerful short films that I’ve ever seen." In retrospect, it's a little entree for Maras' potential. In Maras' last award-winning outing, “The Palace,” I compared the tension he elicited to be reminiscent of the ghetto raid scenes in “Schindler's List.” “Hotel Mumbai” is a marathon of those kinds of moments; an ambivalent collection of the very best and worst aspects of humanity, perhaps more akin to Spielberg's later masterwork, “Munich.” High praise, well earned.
BLAKE HOWARD IS A FILM CRITIC & THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF/CO-FOUNDER OF AUSTRALIAN FILM BLOG GRAFFITI WITH PUNCTUATION . BLAKE IS THE HOST OF THE ONE HEAT MINUTE PODCAST. BLAKE IS ALSO A MEMBER OF THE PRESTIGIOUS ONLINE FILM CRITIC SOCIETY (AND A MEMBER OF THE GOVERNING COMMITTEE), IS A CO-HOST OF GAGGLE OF GEEKS ON SYDNEY'S 2SER COMMUNITY RADIO, A COLUMNIST AT THE AUSTRALIAN ONLINE INSTITUTION DARK HORIZONS AND SWAYS THE TOMATO METER WITH ROTTEN TOMATOES APPROVED REVIEWS.