You know how Margaret Pomerantz gets when she’s moved by a film – all gushy and tremulous, brimmy about the eyes, and instantly defensive if poor old Stratton dares to offer up any critical observations that might suggest she’s going a bit over the top? Well, I was in danger of doing a Pomeranz with this review. Then I attended last Sunday’s Q and A screening at the Luna. Second viewings tend to amp up one’s critical faculties. You know what’s coming, so you’re more aware of structural elements, less inclined to be swept up in emotional response. But second viewing or not, this movie is potent – irresistibly so.
The first Aussie film to be shot entirely in India, The Waiting City is set mostly in West Bengal’s ‘City of Poets’, Calcutta. I spent an all-too-brief 3 days in Calcutta back in the 80s, my last stop after 3 months backpacking around India on a meagre budget with my girlfriend of the time. Drained, debilitated by illness, jaded after a year on the road and the prospect of some difficult travelling still ahead, our relationship strained to breaking, I was nevertheless charmed by Calcutta. There is something special about the place. The Waiting City captures that – and, indeed, the essential qualities of India as I experienced it during those intense few months – as no other movie I have seen does.
So, what qualities am I referring to? The dramatic contrasts and paradoxes; the clashing colours, the smells, the clamour that combine to mount a massive sensory assault; the oh-so-human chaos that somehow sorts itself out into a semi-functioning mess that can be intimidating, infuriating, unbearable even, yet which throbs with a vitality gloriously, fabulously unique. The merging of life and death, the acceptance of one as an intrinsic part of the other. And in the midst of the poverty and wretchedness of those whose every day is an epic struggle for survival, the ancient, poetic beauty of India and her multiple gods and temples, and the ever-present possibility of the mystical that runs like a subterranean river beneath her surface. It’s all here in The Waiting City… and much, much more.
Gush alarm bells ringing? OK, let me pause to strap my inner Pomeranz into a straightjacket.
The story. Ben and Fiona (Joel Edgerton and Radha Mitchell) are an Australian couple in their late 30s who have travelled to Calcutta to adopt a child, Lakshmi. Outwardly stable in their marriage, they have their problems, mostly unacknowledged. Fiona is a corporate control freak, submerged in her legal career, fielding phone calls and engaging in video conferences with her office back in Australia from the hotel room. Ben, on the other hand, is an artistic type, an ex-rock star who is struggling with direction and depression, and with his lack of power within the marriage. When there is a delay in the adoption papers coming through, the couple are forced to wait in Calcutta, and are pulled in different directions as the city gradually but inexorably draws them in.
There is nowhere to hide in the intensity of the Indian experience, and bit by bit their relationship is stripped back to its fundamentals. Their marriage undergoes a sort of purgatory which results in a re-balancing of power within their relationship. Enthralling stuff.
Personally, they embark on different journeys of the soul, Ben reconnecting with his long dormant creative self, and Fiona confronting her denial of the spiritual in two unforgettable scenes of high drama that literally took my breath away. The second, which comes towards the end of the film, features an encounter in a Calcutta street with an extraordinary-looking otherworldy creature in orange robes who is carrying a crippled child on her back. At first, only the child’s arms are visible from behind her, so s/he appears as an apparition of the multi-armed Kālī, the Hindu goddess of time and change. I will resist elaborating further, lest I diffuse the impact of this profoundly dramatic and moving scene for readers who see the movie.
In this time of irony, this is a brave movie. Any feature movie that earnestly engages with the spiritual and the mystical – and I mean really engages, in a contemporary setting with contemporary characters – runs the risk of ridicule. However, the astute treatment of the couple’s relationship is a grounding counterbalance, and the vision that writer/director Claire McCarthy has brought to her movie, informed by her experience of working in Calcutta orphanages and getting to know Western couples adopting Indian children, demands respect. She and her crew have created a film of singular beauty and power out of the marvellous raw material of India, and depicted with great sensitivity the transformational effect of dropping a Western couple into the pressure-cooker of the subcontinent.
Denson Baker’s cinematography is spectacular, the pacing of the movie is astonishingly well handled, and the acting is terrific. The film is not flawless: on my second viewing, I noticed a line of dialogue here and there that was perhaps not entirely convincing. Some may feel the conclusion veers close to sentimentality. But all in all, these are minor gripes.
What more can I say? Well, plenty, but I’ll spare you. If you’ve been to India, this is a must-see. If you haven’t, it’s a must-see. So see it!
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