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‘Hotel Mumbai’ a violent, visceral docudrama

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Recounting real-life stories in movies is complicated business. The filmmakers must decide where to strike the balance between historical veracity and dramatic license – and the line moves. Finding the proper offset between telling the truth and telling a story is tough when that tipping point is in different places. The best docudramas are the ones that toe the line without crossing it, finding the correct distribution of truth and fiction for a particular film.

Making a movie such as “Hotel Mumbai,” a retelling of the real-life 2008 Mumbai attacks focusing on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, demands that delicacy of touch. Not only was this a huge tragedy, but a brutal and violent one; it’s an event that demands sensitivity in its presentation, yet also requires a certain bluntness to be truthful. Director Anthony Maras – who also co-wrote the screenplay with John Collee – had to step carefully.

And for the most part, he did so.

This is an undeniably tense and unexpectedly graphic account of what happened in those hours. While there are moments that skate up to the edge of exploitation, Maras manages to avoid crossing those lines. The visceral brutality of the film is, by most accounts, true to life. And the starkness of the violence allows the moments of selflessness and heroism to stand out the more.

In November of 2008, a group of Islamic terrorists lands in Mumbai to carry out a coordinated attack orchestrated by a mysterious leader known as Brother Bull. These highly-trained men are armed to the teeth and ready to strike a number of ill-prepared targets in the city. One such target is the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel – known locally as the Taj – a luxury hotel that played host to wealthy clientele.

Arjun (Dev Patel, “The Wedding Guest”) is a waiter working at the Taj; he has a wife and child with another on the way. He’s a hard worker – such a hard worker that he’s allowed to stay on at work despite forgetting his shoes, thanks to the soft heart of the seemingly-hardnosed head chef Oberoi (Anupam Kher, TV’s “New Amsterdam”).

Wealthy heiress Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi, TV’s “Counterpart”) has arrived at the hotel for a stay, along with her American husband David (Armie Hammer, “On the Basis of Sex”) and their nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey, “Things I Know to Be True”), who’s here to care for the couple’s brand-new baby daughter.

When the terrorists arrive at the Taj, walking in alongside the scared masses fleeing the initial attacks, they take to their work with vicious efficiency, opening fire in the lobby and gunning down dozens before methodically making their way through the hotel in an effort to kill as many people as possible while also taking a few high-value hostages.

Arjun is working in one of the hotel’s restaurants when the attack begins; Zahra and David are at one of his tables, while at another sits a shady Russian businessman by the name of Vasili (Jason Isaacs, “London Fields”). In an effort to help keep everyone safe, he hatches a plan to get everyone to a more secure location with the help of Oberoi and numerous other hotel employees.

What follows is a desperate chase as Arjun, Oberoi and the rest try to keep as many guests as possible out of terrorist crosshairs. But as the siege continues and it becomes clear that any help that might be coming could be too late, people are left to make life-and-death choices … and they don’t always choose correctly.

I’ll admit that my memories of these events are vague; essentially, I remembered that they had happened, but most of the details were gone. So I can’t really speak to the veracity of “Hotel Mumbai,” but it does feel as though the story was fairly accurate (though the film does start with an “Inspired by true events” disclaimer, so there’s some implied flexibility).

There’s a starkness to the portrayal of violence in this film that borders on the unsettling. It all feels very clinical, both in the attitudes of those committing the violent acts and in the manner said acts are rendered on-screen; it’s a sense of dull remove that makes everything feel all the more tragic and frightening. It’s compelling in the discomfort it generates.

The performances at the top are excellent. Patel is a gifted actor who never quite seems to find the right role; he’s engaging and sharp throughout. Kher is great as well, endowing Oberoi with a low-key charisma that allows him to maintain his power even when quiet. Hammer fits in nicely as the gormless American family man, while Boniadi steals a few scenes with the raw emotion of a mother’s fear. And Isaacs is weirdly charming as the gruff Russian, giving a flat character some depth through force of personality.

As for the terrorists, they’re fascinating even as they’re largely interchangeable. The blank-eyed zealotry that they share is terrifying on a number of levels; even when one of them occasionally shows a glimpse of humanity, it’s quickly subverted through violence. As a group, they’re outstanding.

“Hotel Mumbai” is a bloody, violent look at a bloody, violent tragedy. Perhaps it pushes things a little too far in its viscerality, but it does so in service to the narrative. It is a bleak and unsettling film, but one whose story deserves to be told.

[3.5 out of 5]

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