Dreamgirls. Hairspray. Sparkle. And now The Sapphires. All of these movie musicals essentially tell the same story: the plight for racial equality set against a backdrop of toe tapping show tunes and soul classics. Unfortunately The Sapphires, while approaching the subject from a more unique Australian Aborigine standpoint, can’t shake the comparisons to these glossier, more memorable movies.
More and more I find myself looking for films that bring something new to the table, as one of my biggest prerequisites for a movie has become whether it can show me something that I’ve never seen before. Sadly The Sapphires just doesn’t deliver on that front, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have its moments.
In fairness it actually has a pretty impressive run of fun and highly enjoyable sequences, the majority of them led by the brilliant Chris O’Dowd who delivers one of the finest comedic performances of the year. If the film makes a successful crossover from Australia to the States, he could be in serious contention for some Golden Globes love within the Musical/Comedy arena. All of the charm and likeability seen in his breakout Bridesmaids role is replicated here tenfold. Furthermore it marks an interesting career choice, showing O’Dowd’s willingness to follow the projects he feels most passionately about, and not simply take the Hollywood path that has no doubt opened up for him. I’m genuinely curious to see just how far he can go as a movie star; his charismatic presence and broad appeal could see him soar right up to the top.
Also good are the four unknown songbirds that form the central singing group. They might not have the superstar clout of a Beyoncé or Jennifer Hudson, but these girls can hold a tune and have enough allure and talent to carry virtually all of the film’s musical numbers, as well as much of its drama, which forms more of the movie than one might think. In the story these plucky young singers travel to Vietnam during the war to entertain American troops. It all sounds a little farfetched but the fact that this is based on true events and real people adds a sense of credibility where otherwise there would be virtually none. The songs (all of them soul classics of days gone by) are well-selected and recreated will respect and passion.
As such the film ultimately succeeds in what it sets out to do, and that is to entertain. It’s all a bit throwaway and yes, we most definitely have seen it all before, but there’s an innocence here that will appeal to many, and an overwhelming sense of wanting nothing more than to satisfy the audience, and that’s something viewers should never turn their noses up at.
Seven years before he was receiving death threats and fatwas over the publication of controversial anti-Islamic novel The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie wrote Midnight’s Children. It’s set against India’s independence from British colonialism, mixing fantasy elements with human drama via Rushdie’s trademark magical realism, and eventually took home the 1981 Booker Prize. More than thirty years later Rushdie has returned to his text to personally adapt it for Deepa Mehta’s big screen adaptation.
The story is long and sprawling. Set across several decades, it explores a complete family history over multiple generations, but focuses on Saleem. Swapped at birth by his midwife in an act of personal revolt, it soon becomes apparent that Saleem is part of a special group of children born at midnight on the evening of India’s liberation, all of whom have special powers. It’s an odd twist to bring in this X-Men style plot device to such a serious piece of historical drama, but bizarrely it works. Director Mehta creates a credible India in which her talented ensemble cast work hard to overcome the transitional issues within the screenplay, and pull out some fine performances. In particular Satya Bhabha, who some will recognise from his role in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, anchors much of the second half of the film playing the adult Saleem.
Also strong are the film’s visual aspects. Vivid and sumptuous cinematography and art direction make the most of the movie’s endless locations (of which there are rumoured to be over 600, mostly in Sri Lanka which doubled for both India and Pakistan due to potential religious issues). However Midnight’s Children is not all smooth sailing.
Naturally the task of condensing such a wide-spanning narrative into one cohesive film is no mean feat, and sadly first time screenwriter Rushdie is just not up to the task. The screenplay is disappointingly episodic and while the allegory is all very apt, its effect is numbed by the literalness with which it’s brought to the screen. I’m sure Midnight’s Children is a very fine novel, but its transition to film, while ambitious and entirely watchable, is too often fraught and heavy handed in execution.
Tags: Australian cinema, BFI, BFI London Film Festival, book adaptation, Chris O'Dowd, Deepa Mehta, film reviews, LFF, London Film Festival, Midnight's Children, musicals, Salman Rushdie, Satya Bhabha, The Sapphires
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