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Midnight’s Children – Review
UKScreen Rating:

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

At the exact moment that the British colonial powers are bowing out of India, Saleem Sinai is born into a wealthy family and a destitute busker and his wife have a baby they call Shiva.

A midwife, whose communist lover wants to teach the rich a lesson, is persuaded to switch the babies at birth. She forever regrets her actions.

Saleem grows up a pauper, while Shiva becomes a powerful military man – in the Pakistani army.

Although their paths don’t cross again until Saleem finds himself involved in the uprising to liberate Bangladesh from Pakistan, the pair are intrinsically linked by a magical conference – all the babies born soon after midnight as a nation was being born are telepathically connected and meet regularly to discuss their powers and how they can use them to help their nascent country.

WHAT’S IT LIKE?

Salman Rushdie’s multi-award winning novel – it even won the prize for the best Booker Prize winner – is a lengthy, languorous, serious affair that tackles such grand issues as politics, social cohesion and history itself.

But as soon as you start cutting down a novel stretching hundreds of pages down to the length of a film script, it is bound to lose enough of its intricacies to render much of what happens a little incoherent to anyone not already versed in the history and politics of the south Asian subcontinent in the mid to late twentieth century.

It might also be that the wrong pages were removed from the tale, as this sprawling fable begins a full generation before the arrival of its protagonist – and narrator, which begins the problem of introducing far too many supporting characters for the audience to grapple with – and hard as you try, just when you work out who is who, in many cases, the story moves forward a few years and you don’t encounter them again anyway.

Once the plot finally gets going, there is much to admire – the tale of two babies switched at birth, rich for poor, the implications for the children and the consequences of the guilt of the midwife who switched them, but setting this particular story against the backdrop of one of the key moments in the history of the region, while seeking to imbue it with gravitas and bathe it in commentary ends up clouding it in extra layers of politics that take away from the potential for drama.

Another obstacle to the drama is the story’s inherent magic realism – unless you’re familiar with Rushdie’s oeuvre or the wider genre and unless you have a tolerance for such themes, you might be left wondering whether they characters are a little mad or simply have rather vivid imaginations. Unless it’s a genre you’re comfortable with, it’s a tough ask to expect audiences to travel with you on a narrative journey if you keep throwing in curve-balls and insisting that the genre allows magical intervention to go unchallenged.

The film’s narrator is none-other than Rushdie himself – which is a nice touch and clearly shows that the film has the originator’s backing, but it does rather heap an unintended god-like quality on the story-teller.

Filling a cast almost entirely – if necessarily – with unknown actors from a little-understood culture in an historical context, is always going to make for a hard sell to mainstream audiences. When the only household name involved is the author of the source material and the only other familiar members of the cast and crew are the director Deepa Mehta and one of the smallest characters in the film, played by Charles Dance, it’s like trying to push water uphill.

Slumdog Millionaire and the more recent Life of Pi explored similar territory in that sense, but the energy and versatility of Danny Boyle and Ang Lee gave their films an effervescent quality that lifted them off the page, while Midnight’s Children has a tendency to stay right there.

It’s unquestionably beautiful and undoubtedly ambitious, but Midnight’s children feels somewhat self-important as it comments on the past and present of a country that most of its international audience will neither understand nor particularly care about. That the individuals it uses to explore the grander story fail to engage is the bigger problem.

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