The White Tiger (15)
Verdict: Roaringly enjoyable adaptation
Baby Done (15)
Verdict: Pre-Natal comedy
Consider the calibre of films that have been adapted from Booker or Man Booker Prize-winning novels: Schindler’s List, The English Patient, The Remains Of The Day and Life Of Pi were all festooned with awards of their own, and two of them won Best Picture Oscars.
In truth, though, there have also been a few duds. I thought 2017’s The Sense Of An Ending, inspired by the Julian Barnes book, a terribly dreary affair.
With the new Netflix release The White Tiger, I’m happy to say, the list burns bright once more.
Comparisons will doubtless be made with yet another Best Picture, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008), at which the script makes a sly dig. But this is a cleverer, more complex and more disturbing tale
Writer-director Ramin Bahrani, whose films Man Push Cart (2005) and Goodbye Solo (2008) were both low-budget treasures, has turned Aravind Adiga’s darkly funny debut novel about servitude, class, corruption and ambition in 21st-century India, anointed with the Man Booker back in 2008, into a terrifically enjoyable film.
It is just as well. The two men, Bahrani and Adiga, met 25 years ago as students at Columbia University and have been friends ever since.
Indeed, it is Bahrani to whom Adiga’s book is dedicated. He has returned the compliment in the best possible way.
Early on, in Bangalore in 2010, we see the story’s scheming protagonist, Balram (Adarsh Gourav), composing an email to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, who is about to visit India.
He is a successful entrepreneur, he explains, and Bangalore is his country’s answer to Silicon Valley; not that they need aspire any more to emulate the U.S.
‘I think we can agree that America is so yesterday, India and China are so tomorrow,’ he says.
The film then whisks us back a couple of years and, with extracts from his letter to Wen Jiabao forming a kind of rolling narration, just as in the novel, we learn how Balram rose out of rural poverty to confound India’s rigid caste system and make money.
There are powerful echoes of another Best Picture, last year’s Academy Award-winner Parasite, as he ingratiates himself into a rich Delhi household as a driver, conniving his way into becoming most favoured servant.
It appears he has landed on his feet.
Balram’s new master, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), and his American wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), are, by most standards and within their innate assumptions of superiority, kind and considerate.
But following a night of misadventure, when Balram realises that he is still entirely expendable and society is rigged against him, he begins to plot a fiendish way of exploiting India’s new opportunities, by using the family’s corruption against them.
Comparisons will doubtless be made with yet another Best Picture, also a story of Indian rags to riches, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008), at which the script makes a sly dig.
But this is a cleverer, more complex and more disturbing tale, shining a dazzling, unforgiving light into all the dark nooks and crannies of the master-servant relationship. ‘Do we loathe our masters behind a façade of love . . . or love them behind a façade of loathing?’ muses Balram.
It’s extremely well done.
Also, as a beguiling bonus, The White Tiger shows life running parallel with art. Gourav, a hugely engaging lead, was a virtual unknown before being so astutely cast, while Chopra Jonas, a former Miss World, is a Bollywood superstar. She is excellent, too, but the movie belongs to him.
The New Zealand-set comedy Baby Done tackles a different kind of lifestyle change, as Zoe (Rose Matafeo) contemplates her pregnancy with dread at what might become of her.
‘I want to have a baby, I just don’t want to turn into a mum,’ she says.
The film’s curious title, incidentally, is lifted from the notional list of life achievements to be ticked off, to which Zoe mockingly refers: ‘Married, house, baby . . . done.’
Zoe is a professional arborist, a born adventurer whose response to the idea that her life will be compromised by her growing bump is to get even more adventurous.
She wants to bungee-jump, she wants to fly to Canada to enter the world tree-climbing championships, and is aghast to find she can’t. Effectively, she has pre-natal depression.
I watched with a smile which once or twice erupted into a full-blown laugh
In the meantime, in a subversion of the usual gender stereotypes, her English boyfriend, Tim (Matthew Lewis), is overwhelmed by ‘nesting’ instincts.
Directed by Curtis Vowell, written by Sophie Henderson and produced by Taika Waititi, Baby Done is likeable enough.
I watched with a smile which once or twice erupted into a full-blown laugh, and up-and-coming Matafeo is a ringer in every way for the young Maya Rudolph, which can’t be a bad thing.
At times it’s a little obvious — the comedy strains and gurns a bit — but it’s warm-hearted, and at an hour and a half, doesn’t outstay its welcome.
The White Tiger is available on Netflix, and Baby Done on most digital platforms, including Amazon Prime Video and Curzon Home Cinema, from today.
A nailbiting tail…in any language
Persian Lessons (15)
Of a pair of foreign-language thrillers newly available today, Persian Lessons is easily the pick: it’s a hugely compelling, highly original Holocaust drama, billed as Belarusian though it unfolds mostly in German, and said to have been inspired by true events.
Argentinian actor Nahuel Perez Biscayart is quite brilliant in the central role as Gilles, a rabbi’s son from Antwerp, who in a French forest clearing in 1942 escapes execution by claiming to be not Jewish but Persian.
He is carted off to a transit camp, all set to be transported somewhere even worse, but finds the pretence can help him not just to survive but even thrive, as tutor to a German officer, Koch (Lars Eidinger), who is eager to learn the Persian language, Farsi. The problem for Gilles is that he knows no more Farsi than the officer does, so he begins to invent words, with his life depending on remembering all the hundreds he has made up.
Argentinian actor Nahuel Perez Biscayart (pictured) is quite brilliant in the central role as Gilles, a rabbi’s son from Antwerp
And as if that were not perilous enough, there is a guard intent on exposing him as a Jew and a fraudulent purveyor of gobbledygook.
Vadim Perelman’s film arguably strains our credulity by asking us to believe in Koch’s, but the story is so well told and the performances so strong (especially Biscayart’s) that I found myself completely invested in Gilles, his deception and his fate.
n The Exception (15, HHIII) is an over-ambitious Danish thriller about four female co-workers at Copenhagen’s ‘Centre for Information on Genocide’, one of them played by Sidse Babett Knudsen of the TV drama Borgen, and all of them coping with various travails either psychological, physical, emotional or all of the above.
When one of the women starts receiving death threats by email, suspicion at first falls on a Serbian war criminal, but then it begins to dawn on them that it might be one of their own number.
The film tries hard to conflate office politics with the psychology of genocide, but it’s a conceit that feels too self-conscious to work and it all starts getting a bit silly — a fatal blow for any thriller.
(Both films are available on digital platforms from today.)