The framing device is one of the cinema’s most venerable ways of telling a story. From William Holden floating facedown in a swimming pool at the beginning of “Sunset Blvd.” to Peter Falk reading Fred Savage the story of “The Princess Bride” to Ewan McGregor sobbing at his typewriter in “Moulin Rouge!” it’s a great way to use flashbacks to tell a story and flesh out the characters.
And you’ve never seen a framing device like the one in “Slumdog Millionaire,” a movie so compelling and, ultimately, upbeat, that it left me grinning wider than anything I’ve seen in ages.
The framing device involves young Jamal (Dev Patel), a teenager who fetches tea at one of India’s huge telemarketing companies. Jamal has captured the imagination of the entire country by winning millions of rupees on the India’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Naturally, in a country where the caste system hasn’t completely disappeared, the idea of a “slumdog” answering such difficult questions has the show’s host (Anil Kapoor) convinced that the kid must be cheating, so when we first meet Jamal, he’s being interrogated by the authorities.
A sympathetic police inspector (Irfan Khan of “The Namesake”) takes Jamal through each question that he got right, and in explaining how he knew the answers, Jamal tells his life story of growing up in the slums of Bombay with his hot-headed brother Salim, of being taken in by a Fagin-like exploiter of children and of Latika, the girl he’s loved all his life.
It’s best to know as little of the plot of “Slumdog Millionaire” as possible, so I’ll reveal no more. But Jamel’s story encompasses everything from pluck and triumph to horror and cruelty, and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (“The Full Monty”), adapting the novel “Q&A” by Vikas Swarup, makes this tale almost Dickensian in both its flourishes and its soul.
Jamal, Salim and Latika are each played by three actors at different ages in their lives — children, pre-teens and young adults — and all nine performances are knockouts. It’s Patel, however, who anchors the film and draws the audience into this fascinating story.
India, with its overcrowded streets, cluttered urban skylines and sprawling vistas, becomes a character in the story, too, thanks mainly to Anthony Dod Mantle’s stirring cinematography. Poverty never looked as dazzing as the overhead shots of the maze-like Mumbai ghetto.
I was surprised to learn, after the fact that “Slumdog Millionaire” runs two hours, as those 120 minutes zipped by. (It’s a stark contrast to, say, “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa,” which felt longer than “Berlin Alexanderplatz.”) Once “Slumdog” launches into its final act, you’ll get that pang that comes with the last chapter of a great book you wish you weren’t about to finish.