Salman Rushdie’s 1981 novel goes heavy duty on the allegories for some 500 pages, using the history of India as a template for an excessively complicated family drama spanning generations. This unwieldy film adaptation, scripted by the author himself, tries to cram it all into one movie, with results that are odd, endearing and ultimately exhausting.
The title refers to all the kids born around midnight on the eve of India’s independence, who, in this telling, have an array of superpowers that can for some reason be summoned by the main character’s sneezing. There’s a Rich Man, Poor Man switch that happened at the hospital, where the son of moneyed aristocrats is switched at birth with the son of a peasant accordion player named Wee Willie Winkie. The country’s strict caste system is called into question by this arbitrary swap, but the movie doesn’t go as far as you might think.
Directed by Deepa Mehta, Midnight’s Children doesn’t go so much in this direction as it goes in every direction. It’s a sprawling, breathless piece of work narrated in a rush. Covering some 60-odd years, the movie leaps from one coup to the next revolution in five-minute intervals, accomplishing nothing of particular dramatic merit besides making me realize how woefully ignorant I am about India’s history.
So, we have a character who can summon magical conclaves from within his oversized nose, and what follows is a wacky, harebrained farce in which everybody has a lost love or a mistress, and the over-complicated overlapping of who is still in love with who becomes so daunting, I didn’t want to take notes so much as draw out a flowchart. Meanwhile, this is all supposed to represent India and Pakistan, and wars keep breaking out.
For about an hour, this is all terribly amusing. Rushdie—the Satanic Verses author who had a fatwa on his head in the 1980s and now hangs around with Bono—is irreverent and goofy, piling on the kooky, surrealist interludes. But there is nothing to hang onto here; most scenes last only two or three minutes, and events don’t accrue so much as they just pig-pile on top of one another.
The novelty of Midnight’s Children works surprisingly well at the outset, but what can you really say about a movie that’s most entertaining in the first 40 minutes, before the protagonist is even born?