Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 19, 2019)
Based on true events, 2019’s Hotel Mumbai takes us to India circa 2008. A small group of terrorists arrives in Mumbai and launches a variety of violent, deadly attacks.
These endeavors eventually take them to the enormous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. As the terrorists execute their assault, staff and guests attempt to remain alive.
Of course, Mumbai focuses on specific characters along the way. On the staff side, we mainly concentrate on Arjun (Dev Patel), a waiter in the hotel’s restaurant.
In terms of guests, the film spends a lot of time with Iranian-British heiress Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) and her American husband David (Armie Hammer). They visit the Taj Mahal Palace along with their baby Cameron and nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey).
Our knowledge that Mumbai derives from real events becomes its biggest selling point, as that side adds impact to the proceedings. While we assume that the film takes liberties with some of the facts, our realization that such a brutal terrorist event occurred lends gravity to the tale.
This seems important because otherwise Mumbai feels a little too like something out of the disaster film genre. The movie spreads itself too thin in terms of characters and narrative, factors that damage its impact at times.
As noted, the threads with Arjun and Zahra/David dominate, but not to the exclusion of all else. We dally with quite a few different characters along the way.
Unfortunately, this means we don’t get to know any of them especially well. Arjun receives the best exposition, and unsurprisingly, he becomes the role with which the audience most bonds.
As for the others, they remain too thin to prompt more than token investment from the viewer. We care about them to a decent degree and feel pain when some encounter tragedy, but the lack of much exposition robs these scenes of some impact.
Mumbai also fails to present the scale of the event well. Though we hear how large the Taj Mahal Palace is, we rarely feel that scope.
This means that the place seems nearly deserted despite the supposed presence of many guests and staff. It’s a weird anomaly, as we don’t get the full impact of the tragedy since we see so few of the people involved.
Despite some missteps, Mumbai still packs a reasonable punch. The basic material comes with too much dramatic merit for the film to fall totally flat.
Still, I think it ends up as a bit of a missed opportunity. While the movie’s depiction of heroism among tragedy occasionally hits home, the full package doesn’t quite come together.
Footnote: in the movie, Arjun’s Sikh headwear becomes a major plot point, as the character attaches great value to it. On the Blu-ray’s cover, however, we see Patel bareheaded. Who thought this made sense?