The Taj Hotel terrorist attack of 2008 re-enacted in a tense thriller
The Mumbai attacks of November 26th, 2008 comprised of some of the worst terrorist atrocities ever committed, leaving in their wake a body count of almost 170 people, with around 300 more injured. This messy but effective thriller from Anthony Maras (in his feature debut) revisits the events, beginning with the gunmen’s arrival in the city, before following a splinter group headed specifically for the Taj Mahal Palace hotel.
A brief introduction familiarises us with the staff (Dev Patel as harried waiter, Arjun, and Anupam Kher as head chef Hemant Oberoi) and a handful of guests (including Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi as husband and wife) before the shooting starts. With security incapacitated, the police tied up with other attacks across the panicked city, and special forces over 800 miles away, the guests and surviving staff find themselves in a maze-like death trap.
Titular similarity to Hotel Rwanda says it all: Hotel Mumbai is harrowing, nail-shreddingly tense stuff. Paul Greengrass’ work on United 93 is a clear influence here, with the first shootings filmed from a boots-on-the-ground perspective, bereft of musical score and loaded with realistically loud gunfire. Cameras peer round corners, hesitantly stumble down torn-up hallways, and tremble as bodies fall to the floor.
The interweaving stories of the various guests, staff, and even the terrorists themselves are well-balanced and tightly-edited – any exposition is left to real television footage from the day. Whilst the victims are empathetic purely by plight, there’s some confused humanisation of the gunmen by having them indulge in toilet humour between grisly executions and radio communications with their superior, referred to as ‘Brother Bull’.
The easy callousness with which they operate only increases the tension – a gunman tricks his comrade into eating what he thinks is a meat pizza while Hammer cowers behind the food trolley, one of the terrorists ambles curiously around a luxury suite as a terrified woman struggles to stifle the cries of her infant in the neighbouring bathroom.
None of these moments would feel half as authentic if not for some impressive performances. Charm and effortless likeability has never been an issue for Patel – and he provides both in spades – despite limited screen time. Anupam Kher as the improvised leader of the survivors is particularly fine, and a great deal of gut-punch horror is mined from his cheerful declaration in the wake of the initial bloodshed that “the worst is behind us”. Hammer and Boniadi make a believable, if slightly too Hollywood couple. I’m always up for more Jason Isaacs, but his fictional Russian soldier-turned-businessman sticks out here like a ruddy-faced thumb.
Towards the conclusion – when we’re faced with lengthy, fabricated hostage situations – there’s a sense that Maras and his co-writer John Collee are fumbling for a satisfying conclusion… except there isn’t one. That’s not a knock against the film, but simply the harsh reality. The Taj Mahal Hotel attack didn’t end with slow-motion montages of rescued guests and shoelace-neat conclusions to character arcs, it ended with a nation in shock and one of India’s most recognisable establishments burning well into the next day. Despite a keen eye for the chaotic chronology and ghastly violence of the events, this retelling loses its way in search of an inauthentic resolution.
Hotel Mumbai is in UK cinemas and on Sky Cinema on September 27th
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