I’m still not one-hundred per cent sure about condoning the concept of making thrillers out of real-life tragedies. It’s a large, grey moral area, in which some can unintentionally exploit the victims to create drama. Paul Greengrass’s United 93 avoided these pitfalls extremely well, emphasising the heroic nature of the passengers on the fateful 9/11 flight. When choosing to make a film which details a tragedy of this magnitude, it’s an incredibly difficult balancing act to create an engaging cinematic experience, while not glorifying the tragedy and disrespecting the victims and their families in the process. Hotel Mumbai does this rather well.
The story details the attack on the Taj Palace Hotel in Mumbai. It follows an ensemble of characters including Arjun (Dev Patel)—a waiter under the command of the world-class Chef Oberoi (Anupam Kher)—along with David (Armie Hammer) and his wife Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi), who are have having their young child babysat while they dine at the hotel’s luxurious restaurant. We also meet Russian high-roller Vasili (Jason Isaacs), and track the Mumbai police officers as they raid the hotel
It’s fortunate that Anthony Maras—in his feature directorial debut—manages to balance all of the film’s key elements which could derail a harrowing true story like this. This is mainly due to the fact that he shows the heroic efforts of the staff to ensure the safety of the hotel’s guests. It’s no surprise that the hotel’s main motto “Guest is God” is emphasised throughout. It’s also compelling to see Armie Hammer’s David try and reach the fourth floor to save his child, despite the imminent danger and near certain death that lies ahead.
After Arjun begs Chef Oberoi not to be sent home at the start of the day due to having the incorrect footwear on, it seems like fate that he would be thrust into revealing his inner leader. Dev Patel has nailed portraying the heroic, yet vulnerable everyman by this point in his career—it’s hard not to connect and empathise with him in some way. I would argue Jason Isaacs plays a somewhat comic relief character amongst all of the chaos. He seems to remain calm most of the time, even grabbing a whisky when our characters are hidden off in the hotel’s exclusive club lounge. It’s one of those elements Maras has to balance carefully—if he adds too much humour, it may seem like he’s making light of the situation.
Hammer and Isaacs do their job, even if they don’t shine on the level that Patel and Kher do. One of the more interesting storytelling statements that Maras makes with Isaacs’ character, is that when approached by one of the four armed gunmen, he presumes that due to his recognised wealth, they will not kill hill as he’s a necessary hostage. All the while, local guests and the general public are gunned down in ruthless fashion.
I think the United 93 comparison is a relevant one to make, as it’s obvious Maras has taken inspiration from Greengrass’s aesthetic when shooting the terrifying chaos at hand. It was essential that the direction of action was not glorified in any way because if you show too much of the bloody aftermath, it borders on sensationalism. Fortunately, despite the bluntness of the attack, Maras most often resists lingering on the aftermath of death. There’s no glamorous Steadicam long takes or stylistic flashiness on show, all of the action—shot almost exclusively with a handheld camera—feels grimy and claustrophobic, creating the required realism needed to sell the scenario. Maras is also a fantastic director of tension, creating a consistently disturbing experience.
In a film filled with interesting character choices, humanising the terrorists in many moments may have been the most interesting—and controversial. We see one of the terrorists decide to eat a piece of pizza on a food cart until he emphatically spits it out when his comrade states it was pork, becoming the butt of the joke when they state it was ‘just vegetables’. It seems like a mild joke in an otherwise tense film, until an innocent woman is gunned down only seconds later. It’s a moment where I completely understand its intention, but the abruptness in the tonal shift simply doesn’t work. Where it’s more effective is when one of the terrorists breaks down on the phone to his wife at home in a moment where he’s seemingly recognising the severity of the situation. Maras doesn’t want to redeem them, but he wants us to understand the fact their lives have been consumed by the hatred fed to them by whom they take orders from.
Maras and co-writer John Collee make the smart choice to focus on the whole ensemble instead of giving the point of view to one person. While I wouldn’t have been surprised if they decided to focus on Hammer’s character at the forefront, especially in genre that often favours showing overseas guests overcoming harrowing scenarios, it was great to see the focus often shift to the staff who stayed behind to help the guests—the real heroes of this ordeal.
Hotel Mumbai is effective because while it’s a tragic tale, it always highlights the little efforts of heroism that coalesce over this harrowing experience. While it can be occasionally clunky in its writing (there’s the obligatory scene where an old white lady wants Arjun to take his turban off until he explains he has a family), Maras shows he can direct a tense sequence while not resorting to exploitative directorial choices. It can be difficult to watch at times, but there’s a large amount of humanity at its core; it shows that every single heroic act—either big or small—is important.
Hotel Mumbai is out in select Perth cinemas on March 14.