I never thought I'd say this, but perhaps Salman Rushdie isn't giving himself enough credit.
In adapting his 1981 Booker Prize-winning Midnight's Children, he works with director Deepa Mehta—no stranger to sparking controversy herself —for a film that clocks in at a generous 146 minutes, but which hardly seems long enough to give the three-part epic its due.
Adapting Rushdie to the screen proves a too-delicate balance: His work of historical fiction is an allegory that covers the end of British colonialism in India and the subsequent formation of Pakistan and, later, Bangladesh. On screen, it's difficult to avoid beating the audience with a sack full of symbolism, and so Rushdie overcompensates by dulling the metaphoric edge—and the magical realism—a little too much.
The wit and whimsy of the first act get bogged down in service of too many plot points. Instead of staying so true to the narrative arc, time would've been better spent developing the spirit of the novel, best represented by the children born in the first hour of India's independence and imbued with mystical talents. We follow Saleem Sinai (Satya Bhabha), one such Midnight's Child, who has the telepathic ability to summon his enigmatic spirit-siblings. After being switched at birth with the child of a wealthy family, Saleem grows up wealthy, with a front-row seat to a politically volatile India. When the story turns unapologetically surreal, as in the book, Saleem fits naturally into the inciting incidents that splinter his country. But in a film that can never quite nail down its own mood, Saleem comes off as a more somber Forrest Gump figure, always at the right place at the right time to give us a somewhat awkward tour of India's recent history.
The film too often feels gutted for brevity's sake. The foreboding Widow, later revealed to be Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, is not even mentioned onscreen; Gandhi simply makes her cameo in a too-rushed final act. But there are moments when the allegory is treated with a light enough touch to make it devastating. There can be no greater metaphor for the damage wrought by colonialism than when a British businessman and madman (Charles Dance) impregnates the sweet young Vanita, a traveling musician he forces to perform mindless English ditties. Even after this, Vanita is destined to die in childbirth, but we watch as she and her husband endure the indignity of literally singing for their supper in a painful, almost vulgar state of self-awareness—and just a touch of authentic joy, even in the face of total subjugation.
Which is to say, even defanged, the metaphor sometimes lands.
Critic's Grade: B-
SEE IT: Midnight's Children opens Friday at Fox Tower.