It’s always difficult to tell the story of tragic real life events on the big screen. Characters have to be combined, developments compressed and dramatic liberties have to be balanced with the filmmaker’s duty both to survivors and to those who lost their lives. The latest film to try to portray a sensitive account of a real atrocity is Hotel Mumbai, written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Anthony Maras, taking on the 2008 spree of terrorist attacks on the titular city.
The focus is the opulent Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, where struggling father Arjun (Dev Patel) has reported for work under head chef Oberoi (Anupam Kher) ahead of a high-pressure evening. Wealthy heiress Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) and her American husband (Armie Hammer) have arrived with their small child and nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), while former Russian special services agent Vasili (Jason Isaacs) is also dining in the hotel restaurant. After attacks break out across the city, terrorists enter the hotel and begin indiscriminately shooting guests.
Maras delivers a starkly real depiction of the true event throughout Hotel Mumbai, with bodies falling at an alarming rate as the terrorists carry out their mission with what largely manifests as a chilling lack of emotion. The film spends a lot of time with them, listening as the operation’s ringleaders feed a constant stream of propaganda into their ears about “all they have stolen” from their people. Maras has no interest in making the terrorists sympathetic, but he does make it clear that they’re human beings rather than faceless killing machines, which makes their actions even more terrifying.
Like so many of these movies, Hotel Mumbai focuses on a loosely assembled group of characters attempting to stay alive. They are led initially by Patel’s put-upon waiter and then by the stoic head chef – the only character who has a direct analogue in real life – as they try to remain in the safest parts of the building. Patel, in many ways, holds the movie together, packing anguish and soul into his expressive eyes. Every shred of emotion is believable through his stellar performance.
Unfortunately, that emotional potency is absent elsewhere in the movie. Maras’ determination to depict the clinical, horrifying detail of the attacks is certainly cinematically proficient, but there’s little chance to fully embrace the humanity of the people whose stories we are following. The movie is all about logistics, plans and strategies, with little focus on the way all of this turmoil is impacting those caught up amid its life-or-death maelstrom.
The characters are certainly colourful, but the film only scratches the surface of their personalities. An elderly woman who reacts to a fellow guest with racism is schooled gently on the importance of the Sikh turban by Patel, while Jason Isaacs’ hulking Russian evidently has depth below his intimidating exterior, but the movie never really uncovers it. Nazanin Boniadi is impressive, but she’s saddled with a tonne of third act clichés from writing an emotional farewell letter to running through the smoke-filled corridors alone in search of her child. Armie Hammer, meanwhile, is briefly cast as the hero in a way that doesn’t feel organic.
Despite its lack of focus on its characters, Hotel Mumbai emerges as a very tense viewing experience and one that seems to hew fairly closely to the established version of events. One late in the day development regarding the media is so contrived it can’t possibly be anything other than truth – or so one would hope – and the failures of Indian special forces to arrive swiftly are exasperating and saddening as the clock ticks on and the body count soars.
This is, for the most part, a sensitive and well-handled take on a very recent, and therefore raw, historical event. The performers treat their characters with weight and gravitas – Kher is excellent as the genuinely inspiring Oberoi – and the movie never loses sight of the magnitude of what it is depicting. It’s a solid piece of work rather than a spectacular one, but it bears its responsibility well.
Dir: Anthony Maras
Scr: John Collee, Anthony Maras
Cast: Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, Anupam Kher, Jason Isaacs, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Amandeep Singh
Prd: Mike Gabrawy, Gary Hamilton, Basil Iwanyk, Andrew Ogilvie, Julie Ryan, Jomon Thomas
DOP: Nick Remy Matthews
Music: Volker Bertelmann
Country: India, Australia, USA
Run time: 123 mins
Hotel Mumbai is in UK cinemas and available via Sky Cinema from 27th September.