The movie version of "Midnight's Children" is a labor of love, and that love helps make it better than it probably has a right to be. The sweeping story of Salman Rushdie's novel is infused with magic, epic in scope, richly allegorical and steeped in the history of India. It's just too big to be contained in a feature film — even one that clocks in at north of two hours.
Mr. Rushdie's screenplay manages to encapsulate the major plot lines with a surprising degree of economy. The direction by Deepa Mehta captures the mix of humor, romance, and political turmoil that drives the story. But for all that, there's not enough time to experience the tale intensely enough to sustain the imagination for the duration of the film.
"Midnight's Children's" characters embody and live out India's tumultuous transition from British rule, the bloody division of Hindu India from Muslim Pakistan, the war that saw the creation of the independent state of Bangladesh, and the turbulent rule of Indira Gandhi.
The plot defies an easy summary. At the stroke of midnight, on Aug. 15, 1947, the day of independence, Saleem is born. He's the illegitimate child of a poor woman and a wealthy Englishman. Not long after, Shiva arrives. He's the son of a wealthy Muslim couple, whose lineage is documented in great detail in the early part of the film. A maternity ward nurse, taking the edict of her communist lover to heart — he memorably says, "Let the rich be poor, and the poor be rich" — switched the two. The rich boy Shiva is sentenced to a life in the streets, while Saleem becomes the exponent of his father's dreams and ambitions.
Before long Saleem discovers he has a strange gift for telepathy. As he learns to control his power, he finds himself at the epicenter of a group of children born the night of independence — Shiva included — who have powers derived from their mystical relationship to the birth of their country. Saleem's futile efforts to steer the group to constructive action and away from chaos and violence mirror the turbulent politics of the region.
Bollywood actress Shahana Goswami brings a brooding intensity to her role as Saleem's mother, Amina. It's probably the most demanding role in the film, as Amina juggles her love for her children, her relationship with her distant and increasingly alcoholic husband and her wistful remembrances of a previous marriage to a dreamy, sensitive poet that ended, unconsummated, in divorce. Indian filmmaker Rajat Kapoor is wonderful as Saleem's grandfather Aadam Aziz, a physician trying to balance his own impulses toward modernity with the demands of Muslim family life in India.
There's very little about "Midnight's Children" that, when examined as a discrete element, is not worthy of some praise. Even the voice-over narration — Mr. Rushdie's own rumbling baritone — does a good job of seeing the viewer through potentially confusing moments, and disappearing when it's not needed. But to really work, "Midnight's Children" needed to embody the magic and the charm and the tumult of its story. Instead, it comes off as a faithful but perfunctory adaptation.
TITLE: "Midnight's Children"
CREDITS: Directed by Deepa Mehta; screenplay by Salman Rushdie, based on his novel
RATING: Not rated; movie contains brief nudity and violence
RUNNING TIME: 140 minutes.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS