'Taj Mahal’: Telluride Review

Courtesy of BAC Films
A realistic thriller that fails to ignite.

Stacy Martin ('Nymphomaniac') stars in a subjective take on the Mumbai attacks.

Bullets fly, bombs burst and fires break out, but there’s very little explosive about Taj Mahal, a highly subjective retelling of the 2008 Mumbai attacks that fails to deliver enough story and suspense to function as an outright thriller.

Inspired by real events that took place at the titular five-star hotel, where guests found themselves under siege for several nights by a heavily armed squad of Pakistani terrorists, this second directorial outing from Gallic critic turned filmmaker Nicolas Saada (Spy(ies)) eschews almost all socio-political context to focus solely on the travails of one very rich and beautiful Franco-British girl trapped inside the building.

Yet as much as Nyphomaniac star Stacy Martin is easy on the eyes in the lead role, her character is not particularly hard on the brain, and despite a few light scares there isn’t much here worth biting your nails over. Back-to back premieres in Telluride and Venice should give this French production a boost overseas, where it could find scattered theatrical bids and plenty of VOD action.

The Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, located in downtown Mumbai directly across from the Gateway of India, was one of several locations assaulted by a team of 10 well-trained militants, who arrived at the city by inflatable raft on the night of November 26th and wreaked havoc for the next three days, killing 164 people. While the fact that Westerners were targeted made this an especially newsworthy event abroad, the attacks were unfortunately nothing new in Mumbai, which had suffered several such episodes throughout the preceding decades – the most recent being a series of subway bombings in 2006 that left 200 dead and hundreds more wounded.

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You wouldn’t know any of this from Saada’s screenplay, which sticks almost entirely to the viewpoint of its passive waiflike heroine, Louise (Martin), who’s staying in the hotel with her French dad (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) and British mom (Gina McKee) until they move into an apartment for a two-year stint abroad.

Devoting the first twenty minutes to scenes of Louise and her folks touring the city, or else lounging around their massive luxury suite at the Taj, the film really kicks into gear when mommy and daddy head out for dinner and leave their daughter alone. It’s of course just then that Louise hears strange noises outside, discovering that the usually packed streets are empty. And wait, was that a gunshot down the hallway?

Saada has some clever ways of revealing information while never leaving Louise’s side, using lots of sound effects and a very necessary cell phone to explain what’s happening. Yet while he sets up expectations of an adrenaline-filled, harrowing recreation of actual events, what he winds up delivering is not quite up to par.

Following the phoned-in instructions of her father – who remains remarkably calm at first, taking sufficient time to stop and watch a news broadcast in a bar – Louise locks herself in her room, shuts the lights and hides in the bathroom. She waits for a long time, as do we, while shots and shouts ring out in the rest of the hotel. The highpoint of suspense is when she tries to get her phone charger, only to realize that the assailants are just outside the door. And then she goes back to the bathroom again.

With so much yet so little going on, Saada deserves credit for making some of these moments feel slightly suspenseful, while avoiding the sort of dubious heroism of the Taken franchise. But with neither sufficient characterization (Louise wants to be a photographer, but that’s all we know) nor the realistic thrills of a Paul Greengrass movie, there’s just not enough for a full-fledged feature, and despite an expedited running time the film actually feels both thin and stretched out.

At best, Taj Mahal offers a somewhat faithful depiction of what it’s like to be stuck in a hotel room with unseen bad guys roaming the halls and explosions rocking the foundations, although Louise is not really the girl you’d want on your side: When a fire burns outside and her dad instructs her to place damp towels under the door, she starts complaining about the dirty water. Only later does she show some pep when preventing a downstairs neighbor (Alba Rohrwacher) from plunging to her doom.

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All thrillers toe the line between credibility and risibility, and Saada has clearly opted for the first choice, trying to make things as believable as possible while never using cheap tricks to jolt us. Working with cameraman Leo Hinstin (No Escape), he creates a convincingly lifelike version of events but winds up sacrificing too much in the process, turning a traumatic citywide experience into what feels like a minor family incident.

Production companies: Agat Films & Cie/Ex Nihilo, France 3 Cinema, Artemis Productions
Cast: Stacy Martin, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Gina McKee, Alba Rohrwacher
Director, screenwriter: Nicolas Saada
Producer: Patrick Sobelman
Director of photography: Leo Hinstin
Production designer: Pascal Leguellec
Editor: Christophe Pinel
Casting directors: Antoinette Boulat, Gail Stevens
International sales: Bac Films International

No rating, 89 minutes

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