This harrowing drama recreates the real-life 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, with Dev Patel and Armie Hammer among the cast.
March 14, 2019
During much of Hotel Mumbai, petrified guests and staff are trapped inside the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, trying to flee the gunmen in their midst. Dramatising the real-life incident from 2008, first-time filmmaker Anthony Maras recreates the terror, tension and tragedy as attackers roam the hotel's halls, shooting everyone on sight — and as ordinary folks scramble to survive the violent onslaught. But in the movie's clumsiest scene, a group huddles in a locked area. Nerves and tempers fray, especially when an older woman voices racist worries about Taj Mahal Palace Hotel employees. It's a blatant learning moment, as viewers witness prejudice both lurking in and defeated by the most fraught of circumstances. It's also as heavy-handed as it sounds, and as unnecessary.
Everyone is the same when their lives are under threat in such a horrific way. Everyone is the same anyway, but staring down the barrel of a gun helps hammer this realisation home among the closed-minded. While there's no doubting the validity of the film's message or the warm intentions behind it, Hotel Mumbai is so convincing when it's showing the truth of its central statement that it doesn't need to resort to shouting its sentiments in such a clumsy fashion. The details seen speak for themselves, from the senselessness of lives slain by those mercilessly seeking to incite fear, to the unwavering endurance, resilience, kindness and heroism demonstrated by the terrorists' intended victims. Thankfully, Maras and co-screenwriter John Collee (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Tanna) avoid simple life lessons for most of the movie's running time, letting the confronting on-the-ground specifics do the heavy lifting.
Wednesday, November 26 seems like another ordinary day in the titular Indian city. Concierge Arjun (Dev Patel) arrives at work wearing just one shoe, much to head chef Hemant Oberoi's (Anupam Kher) dismay. Couple Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) and David (Armie Hammer) are seeking a respite from their busy schedules, albeit with their newborn baby and Australian nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) by their sides. With a private party planned, demanding Russian businessman Vasili (Jason Isaacs) is hardly a model guest. But along with Aussie backpackers Eddie (Angus McLaren) and Bree (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), they're all soon caught in a nightmarish plight, with a group of young jihadists wreaking havoc on their way towards the luxurious hotel.
For many, Hotel Mumbai's events will remain fresh in their memories, as the film's use of news footage only cements. The difference between reading the headlines and feeling like you're there is enormous, of course, and it's the latter that drives dramatic big-screen recreations. Drawing their narrative from interviews with survivors and witnesses, Maras and Collee aim to place viewers in the thick of the chaos. Primarily shot in Adelaide by cinematographer Nick Remy Matthews, it's a feat they achieve. From the second the film introduces the assailants, a sense of urgency pulsates through every frame — whether racing through darkened streets, seeing innocent people mown down by bullets, or watching as the decadent Taj Mahal Palace Hotel becomes a bloody battlefield.
Indeed, Hotel Mumbai is so effective at putting the audience in the moment — and in the shoes of the desperate victims — that the film's straightforward nature largely escapes notice. Big questions aren't begging to be answered and explanations aren't offered, with Maras depicting the grim situation as he's been able to piece it together, rather than editorialising or analysing the particulars. Helped by a solid cast, it's a fitting approach. Such harrowing horrors call for a sober perspective, which is what makes the movie's rare instances of overt button-pushing feel so out of place. At its best, in bringing this bleak slice of reality to the screen, Hotel Mumbai stares into one of humanity's darkest ordeals and refuses to look away.