Opens Fri., May 10 at Egyptian. Not rated. 140 minutes.
When Midnight’s Children was published in 1981, one might have assumed that its promising author would become best known as a writer of magical realism and an observer of the divide between India and Pakistan. That’s not the way it worked out for Salman Rushdie. His 1988 novel The Satanic Verses was judged to be blasphemy against Islam by the world’s worst literary critic, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and Rushdie has lived under threat of death ever since.
Midnight’s Children predates all that, yet its absurdities depict the maelstrom out of which such chaos comes. And when the new film adaptation was in production in Sri Lanka, it encountered lingering hassles related to Rushdie’s notoriety; at one point a forced shutdown was lifted after director Deepa Mehta made nice with the president of the island nation.
The movie is a streamlined version of the novel—aren’t they all?—but the 146-minute running time conveys some level of epic sprawl. Much of the narrative springs from the precise moment India becomes an independent nation in 1947, which coincides with the birth of two boys who are switched in the hospital. Shuttled off to a wealthy Muslim family is Saleem (played as an adult by Satya Bhabha) whose life collides with the tumult of India and Pakistan over the course of 30 years or so.
Saleem is also telepathically bugged by a score of other children born on his and India’s birthday; these supernaturally gifted entities—including, of course, the kid switched at birth with Saleem—crowd and bicker and generally make trouble inside his head. For these scenes, Mehta fuzzes up the screen and piles on the ghostly auras—which might be the worst possible approach to conjuring up magical realism.
The Canadian-Indian Mehta is best known for her trilogy about the subcontinent, Fire, Earth, and Water, and those films succeed because of her sturdy sense of social-issue melodrama. Rushdie’s world needs something else, a tricky blend of irony and flow, and except for certain episodes (a wonderful opening reel involving a physician who meets his future wife when he treats her as a demure patient standing behind a sheet), the movie doesn’t sustain that feel.
It does have humor, however, and an excellent cast of veterans and newcomers, including some very amusing children. If the movie doesn’t soar, it does catch the bustle of a Rushdie canvas, and the backdrop is fascinating. And Rushdie himself narrates. His voice is calm, wry, detached. It has the sound of messy history—personal and national—refined into art. Even if we never quite believe the young Saleem could grow into that voice, it’s the most interesting thing about Midnight’s Children.