Midnight's Children (12A)
Dir: Deepa Mehta
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With: Satya Bhabha, Shahana Goswami
Runtime: 146 minutes
THE next time someone says there are certain books that are simply unfilmable, point them in the direction of The Life of Pi, now showing in cinemas.
There are books that are difficult to take from page to screen, but with the right director and the right screenwriter, in Pi's case Ang Lee and David Magee, anything is possible. As always with cinema, it is about thinking big and allowing the images to do the talking.
Deepa Mehta's Midnight's Children thinks big, but does not always think cinematically. The result is a film that looks wonderful but loses the plot early on and becomes a bore.
While no-one would have expected Salman Rushdie's sprawling Booker-winner to clip along like a thriller, the film meanders hither and thon for 146 minutes, and what is at first a charming narrative style becomes a test of endurance.
Although packed with characters, Mehta's picture is in the main the story of one boy, Saleem Sinai (played by Satya Bhabha, below), who is born on the stroke of midnight as India becomes independent from Britain. August 15, 1947, is just one of a blizzard of dates as Mehta begins her tale back in 1917 with the parents, and follows her main characters up to the partitioning of Pakistan and beyond.
At first there is a certain pleasure to be had in settling down to what you know is going to be an epic tale. Mehta certainly makes it easy on the idea, serving up a banquet of stunning images. But sooner or later the story has to take the lead, and after initially drawing the viewer in, the film seems to forget about the need to keep them there. On and on it plods, picking up one strand of the story only to drop it in favour of another.
When this happens in a film it is usually a case of cherchez the writer, and never more so here. Rushdie has adapted his own novel for the screen and it shows. He does not so much kill his darlings as cosset them and give them all the time in the spotlight he thinks they deserve.
In journalism there is a fundamental rule that one should never edit one's own work. By all means edit it to the point where it is as good as it can be, but every piece of writing, be it book or screenplay, can benefit from a fresh eye. The editor is the representative of the viewer and reader, there to cut out unnecessary material and shine up the rest. Granted, this was always going to be a difficult job with Midnight's Children, but having the author try to wrestle his own work into a film was asking for trouble.
So it proves here as Rushdie, who also narrates, introduces new character after new character, and period after period. Add to this the politics of nationalism, dashes of magic realism, and the general grand sweep of history, and you have a vibrant but shapeless picture that is a struggle to get through after the first hour. Everything is sacrificed – including the lovely dashes of humour at the start – to the cause of slogging on with the story and leaving nothing out.
Rushdie's latest book is Joseph Anton, a memoir centred on the writer's experiences of living under the fatwa placed on him by the Ayatollah Khomeini, which has a clear, compelling story that should make a film to watch. Let's hope someone else does the screenplay.