Few filmmakers have the range of Danny Boyle. While it seems like most directors just keep making a variation of the same movie over and over, Boyle has continually broken new ground with each film.
Boyle's first film, "Shallow Grave," was a low budget crime thriller. The film's success allowed Boyle to make "Trainspotting," a dark, ultra-hip comedy about a group of Scottish heroin addicts. Then came 1997's "A Life Less Ordinary," a romantic comedy. In 2000 Boyle made his bid for mainstream success with the drama "The Beach," the first post-"Titanic" Leonardo DiCaprio movie.
"The Beach" wasn't the biggest success so Boyle returned to his lower budget roots and in 2002 unleashed "28 Days Later," an exhilarating reinvention of the zombie horror film. And what does he follow that with? He goes from blood-drenched ultra-violence to a PG-rated children's movie, "Millions." He follows that with 2007's "Sunshine," an intellectual science fiction film in the mold of "2001" and "Solaris."
It seems all but impossible to guess which genre Boyle will tackle next. Yet who could have predicted "Slumdog Millionaire," perhaps Boyle's best picture since "Trainspotting"?
Having taken us everywhere from tropical paradise to a junky's shooting gallery to outer space, Boyle's new film is set in the extreme poverty of the slums of Mumbai. Two plot threads intertwine. The primary one tells the story of Jamal Malik (Dev Patel,) a 20-year-old who has lived his entire life as an orphan on the streets. Now he has an opportunity to radically change his life and that of Latika (Freida Pinto,) the woman he loves. He's a contestant on the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and as the film begins he's won 10 million rupees and has one final question in order to claim his prize of 20 million.
The show ends with Jamal having the final question ready for the next night's program. Immediately after the program Jamal is arrested on suspicion of cheating. The police torture him for a confession but he resists, gradually telling them the story of his life and how certain questions related to events from his life of poverty. We're treated to flashbacks of Jamal, his brother Salim and how they rescued Latika multiple times.
We see how over the years Salim fell to the temptation faced by so many people living in poverty: the easy way out of a life of criminality. And he's dragged Latika in with him. She lives unhappily as the live-in girlfriend of the neighborhood crime boss and longs for Jamal to rescue her.
The film is packed with a variety of dramatic and suspenseful moments, from Jamal's answers to questions on the show to him and Salim fighting to survive as homeless orphans. Even though the subject matter and the setting are very different from anything Boyle has ever done "Slumdog" has shades of his previous films all over the place. There's bits of "Trainspotting" with its exciting chase sequences and memorable use of music. (Fans of British-Indian rapper M.I.A. will be pleased with the particularly clever use of her hit "Paper Planes.") The hand-held camera intensity of "28 Days Later" is thrown into many of the sequences of the poor children in the slums. And the focus on a young protagonist like in "Millions" fuels the film. Further the film has the bold colors of "Sunshine" and exhilarates with its vivid images and cinematography.
What really makes the film, though, is nothing aesthetic. It's the ultimate underdog story from the very beginning. Jamal fights to raise himself and the woman he loves out of poverty so they can live happily ever after. At its heart the film is a classic fairy tale, a story of hope and determination universal in being able to cut globally across cultures and sensibilities.
Will "Slumdog" result in Boyle's first Oscar win? The film received ten nominations and is probably the most "Oscar friendly" movie the director has ever made. (The Academy tends to have a bias against heroin, science fiction, and zombies.) I have yet to see all the nominees but so far it seems right to root for the underdog.