Australian filmmaker Anthony Maras announces himself as a major director to watch with his feature debut Hotel Mumbai, a harrowing recreation of the 2008 terror attacks that saw 10 Pakistani gunmen wage war on India’s financial capital, including its famed Taj Hotel.
The film opens with the first of 12 coordinated attacks—a mass shooting at a very crowded train station, followed by an absolutely chilling shooting at a cafe, where we meet a young couple whose lives will be forever changed over the next 12 hours. And yes, though the actual attacks took place over four days, the events are condensed for the purpose of the film, and seem to take place over the course of a single night, further ratcheting up the tension. The standoff lasts as long as it does because all of the trained response units are in New Delhi, which is located some 800 miles away.
Dev Patel (solid, as always) and Armie Hammer star as a waiter and VIP guest at the Taj, respectively, though this is hardly their film. Instead, it’s a true ensemble piece, with a standout performance from Bollywood legend Anupam Kher, who registers strongest as the hotel’s Chef and de facto leader of the hostages. You may remember Kher from acclaimed films like Silver Linings Playbook and The Big Sick. Here, the 63-year-old actor gets a showy role, and thankfully he has the gravitas to pull it off. Patel and Hammer may be the name-brand stars here, but neither role is written like a star part, and as a result, you end up more riveted by the terrorists (led by Amandeep Singh), all of whom remain calm and collected as they pull their triggers with senseless indifference. Had the entire film had been from their point of view, or that of the hostages, it might have been an interesting choice, but in trying to tell everyone’s story, Maras and co-writer John Collee (Master and Commander) end up telling no one’s story in depth. Which is why the film, as thrilling as it is, never quite penetrates deep enough, though I appreciate that it allows the audience to choose who to identify with.
Having said that, the film remains an impressive calling card for Maras, who lays out the geography of the hotel quite nicely so it’s easy to track where everyone is and how far apart from each other they all are. Indeed, the guests who were dining when the shooting started find themselves isolated from the rest of the hotel, which means Hammer and his wife (Nazanin Boniadi) are desperate to rescue their baby and her au pair (Tilda Cobham-Hervey). Hammer might have the physique of a superhero but he’s never been much of an action star, and this film won’t change that. You keep waiting for his character to do something—anything!—to save his family. When he finally does, the results are surprising.
Maras’ direction and the cinematography from newcomer Nick Remy Matthews are largely impressive, as is the choreography, which is designed to create the maximum amount of suspense. Of course, films about terrorist attacks are inherently difficult to review because no matter what, they can come across as exploitative recreations of real-life tragedies to some. However, as far as these things go, Hotel Mumbai ranks among the more effective entries in the genre, which includes gems such as United 93 and Patriots Day. It’s just very intense, very violent, and frequently disturbing—never more so than when the gunmen (all of them Islamic) knock on guests’ doors posing as room service to bait their targets. Let’s just say that at the start of the film, I was surprised to see it was produced by Basil Iwanyk‘s Thunder Road, though it made more sense afterwards, because Hotel Mumbai definitely plays like it could be from the producer of the John Wick movies. Frankly, I’m not sure which features more gunfire.
Sure, after two hours, the relentlessly grim film starts to feel oppressive, and you’re ready to escape just as badly as the hostages are, but that may just be a sign of a job well done and a commitment to realism. Some will yearn for an early check out, but I urge you to put up a fight and stay until the end, which resonated more strongly for me than Paul Greengrass‘ 22 July, which explores the emotional aftermath of such an attack. When the smoke cleared over Mumbai, it was discovered that half of all casualties were staff who gave their lives to protect the hotel’s guests. The “guest is God” at the Taj, and the staff sacrificed themselves in the name of that God—a sacrifice far more brave than that of the terrorists who were willing to die for their twisted beliefs.
Hotel Mumbai may not live up to the actual Taj’s five-star rating, but this Weinstein Company orphan (rescued by Bleecker Street and due in 2019) exceeded expectations and delivered the goods thanks to its dedicated ensemble, its confident direction and its commitment to realism, no matter how hard it may be to watch.
Hotel Mumbai currently does not have a release date.