Despite Chris Tarrant's stupid face
, there's no denying that Who Wants To Be A Millionaire is an ingenious concept for a game show. Resist flipping channels for just a few minutes and before you know it, you're yelling furiously at your TV because a man from Surrey doesn't know the capital of Venezuela or punching the air with joy because a housewife from Kent correctly guessed the lyrics to 'Three Lions'. It's the ultimate in terms of viewer participation; a formula that's custom-made to build unbearable tension. Frankly, it's a miracle no one has thought of adapting the format to film. Well, one person has.
Danny Boyle is that man. A director of great quality, he still manages to fly under the radar when it comes to the big British names in the industry - perhaps that's what happens when you favour story and character over franchise and paycheque. Slumdog Millionaire will change Boyle's status, for better or for worse - it is a film that simply demands respect. Adapted from Vikas Swarup's novel Q&A, Slumdog hijacks the Millionaire format and uses it as the framework for a gripping narrative that's both heart-breaking and uplifting in equal measure. Released in January for Oscar contention - and only a fool would bet against it or Boyle taking home gold - it sets the bar sky high for the rest of the year's contenders.
We first meet Mumbai youngster Jamal (Skins' Dev Patel) as he sits in the Millionaire hot-seat, meeting the gaze of pompous presenter Prem (Anil Kapoor), the Indian equivalent of Tizwaz's finest. Against all odds, this lowly young man is on the verge of scooping the show's jackpot of 20 million Rupees. How could a former street urchin - or 'slumdog' - turned tea-boy beat the system? Is he a genius? Is he cheating? Or, as we suspect, does fate have a hand in his success? Whisked away after the end-of-show klaxon sounds, Jamal is arrested on suspicion of fraud, where he finally reveals to a beguiled police officer via flashback just how he came to know the answers.
The show's ladder format sets the film's foundations, and Swarup's source material milks it for all it's worth, but it's to Boyle's credit that Slumdog never comes across as a worthier-than-thou exercise in Oscar-grabbing - there are themes here that the Academy will no doubt adore (destiny, fate, victory over adversity etc.), but they're executed in such a way that it feels like a totally fresh and original experience. As the prize value mounts and the stakes get ever higher, new episodes of Jamal's turbulent childhood are revealed - Boyle deftly inter-cuts between the studio's harsh lights and the colourful episodes of his hero's past. Phoney sentiment is unwelcome here; emotional attachment is achieved effortlessly.
If the somewhat flat representations of Indian life veer dangerously close to stereotype at times - child beggars led by a Fagin-esque baddie, torture-happy policemen, tea-sipping call centres workers etc. - it only helps enforce the feeling of a fantastical fairytale: nothing this imaginative and good-natured would ever happen in reality. Despite the broad strokes, Mumbai makes for a vibrant canvas for Boyle to paint on; from dusty slums to technicolour market places and towering skyscrapers, the city grows in character just as the protagonists do. Between last year's Darjeeling Limited
and now Slumdog, expect the Indian tourist board to be overwhelmed with new business.
Someone else who'll no doubt reap the benefits of the film's success will be Dev Patel, who belies his unimpressive TV credits - Skins being the most obnoxious programme on television - to turn in a performance measured to perfection. Kudos also to Boyle's child actors - we also see Jamal as a wee nipper and a young teen - who display the kind of charm that only amateurs can: their wide-eyed innocence provides valuable moments of levity to lighten scenes that would otherwise be bleak beyond belief. And hey, forgive us a shallow moment, but love interest Frieda Pinto is obscenely beautiful: watch out for her.
Slumdog Millionaire is a film that's rich with character, emotion and pathos - with a supremely uplifting finale that'll leave your head in the clouds, it's the kind of movie that will significantly brighten your day. The only real question is this: is it a) good enough to nab the Best Picture at the Oscars in February, or b) destined to be overlooked in favour of something more saccharine in flavour? Just ask the audience: anyone's who's seen Slumdog Millionaire couldn't deny it's one of the finest films of the year. Back this dog to win.