As a society, it’s in our nature to look for, and celebrate, heroism amid tragedy. When confronted with terrorism, we rightly honor those with the courage, the selflessness, to stand up, to do something, to be rescuers and first responders.
But on some lesser level, one wonders, are we also seeking a salve for the realization that we’ve been victimized, period? Are we collectively coping by focusing on the thought that we didn’t simply take it — we took action?
This seems to be the thinking at work in “Hotel Mumbai,” a brutally unvarnished account of the coordinated terrorist strikes that rocked the Indian metropolis in November 2008, including an extended siege on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. The film’s director and co-writer, Australian first-timer Anthony Maras, actively spotlights the surprising number of hotel employees who remained with their guests throughout the attack by Pakistani fundamentalists.
Yet Maras and his cast craft such a chilling, narratively grueling dramatization of the episode — chaos worsened by the lack of tactical response forces in Mumbai — it’s tough to view quietly-played everyman heroics as the story’s takeaway. These striving unfortunates are just too hopelessly, fatally overmatched for that. Audiences are likelier to leave horrified or, at best, numb.
Dev Patel gets top billing, as Arjun, a young family man and humble kitchen staffer who, along with the hotel’s exacting head chef (Anupam Kher, “The Big Sick”), puts a face on the locals’ valor. Patel is too good an actor to be pigeonholed in ethnic roles, as he seemingly continues to be; he’s solid as usual in a live-to-serve turn slightly dicier than his “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” romps.
Among his Western guests this time: a well-to-do British-Iranian expat and new mother (Nazanin Boniadi, “Homeland”), her American architect husband (Armie Hammer), the couple’s nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), and a high-rolling Russian thug (Jason Isaacs, patchily accented but intriguing). The film’s commonality themes are capably played: If you relate to Boniadi’s and Hammer’s characters risking everything to be there for their baby, imagine what it takes for similarly devoted Arjun to suppress that instinct and stay to help. The youthful gunmen, meanwhile, are depicted as dead-eyed but not utterly soulless, the impressionable products of poverty and hate-mongering manipulation.
If there’s a certain lack of subtlety driving a scene in which Arjun soothingly explains the cultural significance of his turban to one especially rattled guest, the one-world sentiment is nevertheless welcome and earnestly handled. But the film struggles to fully achieve its goal: showing how bravery and compassion cross ethnic lines to trump terror. “Hotel Mumbai” captures the Taj siege so hauntingly, messages of hope and reassurance aren’t easily heard.
★ ★ ½
Directed by Anthony Maras. Written by John Collee and Maras. Starring Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, Anupam Kher, Jason Isaacs. Boston Common, Kendall Square, suburbs. 123 minutes. R (disturbing violence throughout, bloody images, language).
Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.