The Waiting City -- Film Review

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TORONTO -- The journey looks like an overly familiar one as "The Waiting City" begins. Westerners confronting, then being rejuvenated by the mysterious East is by now a cliche. Yet Sydney-based writer-director Claire McCarthy proves too smart to fall into that trap. She appreciates and, even better, understands the power Indian spiritualism can have on foreigners, and so has made a persuasive, intimate account of a couple's encounter with the subcontinent.

By this description alone, you understand this is no "Monsoon Wedding" or even "City of Joy." While the film's grip on a viewer dramatically increases as the story moves deeper and deeper into an experience that exposes a couple's troubled relationship, McCarthy makes no concessions to commercial considerations. The film is solely designed for festivals and art venues but word of mouth should help "The Waiting City" reach a receptive audience.

Radha Mitchell and Joel Edgerton play a 30-something Australian couple, who comes to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) to claim an adopted daughter, Lakshmi. Red tape delays things so they are forced to wait in this exotic and often trying city.

The wife, a lawyer, juggles her mobile phone and laptop so that it's like she never left the office. The husband is a musician so with an adventurous spirit and guitar in hand he makes friends easily in the city. His running into a pretty fellow musician (Isabel Lucas) causes displeasure in his wife, the first notable crack in the happy-couple facade.

Kolkata with its frustrations, alien customs and thousands of gods put the couple's relationship to a test. Long-ignored resentments, hidden feelings and one very bad secret bubble to the surface.

Mother India herself seems to challenge the newcomers. A hotel worker (Samrat Chakrabarti), who befriends them, doesn't even disguise his concern about a white couple adopting an Indian child or about the wife's lack of religious faith. A clear-headed nun (Tilotamma Shome) demonstrates her love for the child is equal to theirs.

A trip to their daughter's hometown and a first encounter with Lakshmi herself puts further stress on their stability. Are they even suitable as a couple, much less parents?

When one is surrounded by gods and devotion, Western dismissal seems shallow. In Kolkata, a filthy river is holy and a Catholic orphanage thinks nothing of closing to celebrate a Moslem holiday. The culture is steeped in belief. When life hangs in the balance in this place, unbelief is no help.

The film is not without its touristic elements. The director and her cinematographer, Denson Baker, aren't going to pass up the opportunity to show the glories and the muck of this ancient city. Bureaucracy, lost luggage, destitute beggars, upset bowels and a snake assail the visitors.

Yet McCarthy is not about to fetishize poverty or celebrate the exotic. India offers the couple a different way to look at everything. It invigorates them. Their former life has become the dream and the intense experience of India is now the reality.

It comes as no surprise to learn that McCarthy has worked in orphanages and the slums of India so hers is both an insider and an outsider's viewpoint. This attitude informs every frame of this fascinating drama, a welcome addition to the new Australian cinema.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production companies: See Pictures/Sol Films
Cast: Radha Mitchell, Joel Edgerton, Samrat Chakrabarti, Isabel Lucas, Tillotama Shome
Director/screenwriter: Claire McCarthy
Producer: Jamie Hilton, Claire McCarthy
Executive producer: Mark Horowitz
Director of photography: Denson Baker
Production designer: Peter Baxter
Music: Michael Yezerski
Costume designer: Justine Seymour
Editor: Veronika Jenet
Sales: H20 Motion Pictures
No rating, 108 minutes