Even if you’re familiar with the events on which it’s based, there’s still plenty of suspense dished up in Hotel Mumbai.
This harrowing thriller from director and co-writer Anthony Maras depicts the shocking attacks by jihadi terrorists that fanned out across the city of Mumbai, India, for three days in November of 2008. Maras narrows his focus to the luxury Taj Palace Hotel, where staff, guests and refugees fleeing coordinated attacks in other parts of the city found themselves trapped in a deadly game of cat and mouse with three assault-weapon-toting terrorists inside the hotel.
One way to portray historical events onscreen is to stick as closely as possible to known facts with documentary-style realism, allowing dramatic significance and personal stories to emerge organically out of the situation—as Paul Greengrass did so effectively in United 93. Or you can tart it up with a lot of Hollywood window dressing in support of a completely fictional main story, like Titanic.
In Hotel Mumbai, Maras attempts to combine the two. Only one of his main characters is based on a specific real person, Taj head chef Hermant Oberoi (played by Anupam Kher), a well-known culinary star in India who organized the hotel staff to protect the guests and out-maneuver the gunmen during the three-day siege. The rest of the characters tasked with bearing the emotional weight of the story are largely fictionalized, although their actions in the movie are often based on actions taken by various people trapped inside the hotel at the time.
Dev Patel gets star billing (although this is truly an ensemble piece) in the everyman role of Arjun. A young Muslim waiter at the hotel with a wife and adorable child to support, he earns our empathy right away when he’s unable to find the correct shoes in time for his shift, to the displeasure of the impeccable Oberoi.
Arriving on the same day is a globetrotting young married couple: American David (Armie Hammer) and his Muslim wife Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi), who have come to Mumbai to replicate their stateside wedding for her family in India. They have their infant son in tow, along with young British au pair Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey ). Vasili (Jason Isaacs)—a cool, imperious Russian—is a repeat customer who’s in the middle of ordering a couple of girls off the appetizer menu in the dining room when the Taj gets word that terrorists are running amok in the city.
Oberoi tells the staff that their No. 1 objective is to protect the guests, but he gives everyone the option of returning home to their own families. Most stay, including the resourceful Arjun, to help Oberoi gather the guests in a relatively safe area to wait out the siege. But the stakes rise when three armed terrorists sneak into the hotel and start perpetrating bloody mayhem from within, raining gunfire on anything that moves and burning entire wings in their wake as they hunt relentlessly for more victims.
Moral imperatives and random acts of heroism ensue, as Maras tries to hew to the fine line between stark realism and the purely sensational. You can feel him trying to take the high ground to deliver a sobering account of events (real and imagined), but as the body count escalates, it all starts to play out like a horror movie. Yes, the horror for these people was all too real, depicted here with deft precision; if you long to experience the nerve-shredding anxiety of a terrorist attack, this movie is for you.
But there’s nothing especially transcendent in Maras’ storytelling — some epiphany that would make wading through all the bloodshed more meaningful. The narrative is calculated to give us a rooting interest in the fate of certain characters. The gunmen are interchangeable young men with earbuds plugged into a faceless jihadist, whose vicious directions they obey without question. Hotel Mumbai is a visceral, handsomely produced record of unimaginable brutality, but our emotional reactions—while shaken—are not stirred.
**1/2 (out of four)
With Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, and Jason Isaacs. Written by John Collee and Anthony Maras. Directed by Anthony Maras. Rated R. 125 minutes.