The Waiting City is an exceptionally beautiful story about love, shot entirely on location in the vibrant city of Calcutta. Australian couple Ben and Fiona Simmons, played by Australian actors Joel Edgerton and Rahda Mitchell, travel to Calcutta to adopt a little girl from Mother Teresa’s orphanage. Fiona is a successful and hard-working lawyer, accurately described by Rahda as “acerbic”, and Ben is an aspiring musician who seems to have lost motivation in life. Arriving in Calcutta, they discover that the adoption has not yet been finalized and the waiting game begins, bringing the long-simmering tensions of their marriage to the boil. It is when they let go and immerse themselves in the intoxicating city that they start to learn what love genuinely means, discovering loves both old and new.
Written and directed by Australian Claire McCarthy (Skin, The Find, City Edge) the film will no doubt strike a chord with couples worldwide as adopting children, both in one’s own country and internationally, becomes increasingly difficult. McCarthy met a number of couples who had come to India to adopt a child while she was working as a volunteer for Mother Teresa’s nuns in the slums of Calcutta, and her interest in their stories began to grow. It was during this trip that she fell in love with India.
Both Rahda Mitchell, star of the Oscar nominated Finding Neverland and Pitch Black, and Joel Edgerton, star of the recently acclaimed Animal Kingdom and Star Wars Episodes: II and III, give stirring performances, vividly conveying the heartache involved in the adoption process and the vulnerabilities involved in loving. They are supported by a large and varied cast including rising Australian actress Isabel Lucas (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Home and Away) as Scarlet, an old music industry friend of Ben’s.
However, the true stars of Waiting City are the people of Calcutta and the city itself. Shot in the streets and seen through eyes of its people the film matches the vibrancy of Slumdog Millionaire and the romance of Monsoon Wedding. Well-known Bollywood actors Samrat Chakrabarti (New York and Kissing Cousins) and Tilotamma Shome (Monsoon Wedding and Shadows of Time) merit notable mentions in the roles of Krishna and Sister Tessila respectively. Krishna is the local Indian who acts as a guide to the young couple, gradually becoming more and more involved in their story. Chakrabarti manages to combine comedic dexterity with profound insight in the character of Krishna, a remarkably difficult feat. It is through Krishna’s eyes that the people and city come alive for the audience. And it is when Ben and Fiona begin to see their problems through his eyes — that is, begin to see the West through the eyes of the East — that the story becomes really interesting. Sister Tessila is one of the nuns at the orphanage and McCarthy is at her best in drawing this character. Though a woman of few words, Sister Tessila teaches Ben and Fiona what it really means to love. Shome plays the role of this humble and wise woman with moving subtlety.
Those seeking the violence and dark emotions that are unfortunately characteristic of recent Australian cinema should look elsewhere. Not only is Waiting City completely free of violence, but at the end of it I had the refreshing experience of discovering that my will to live had not been mislaid along the way. In fact, while I would recommend taking a hanky along with you, I left the cinema feeling uplifted and enriched.
It is interesting to note that a significant cross-section of Indian audiences did not take a shine to recent Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire the way Western critics and audiences did. They bemoaned the unflattering representation of their society — the depressing elements of the story as well as the explicit depictions of violence and sex, which are more at home in Hollywood than in cheerful Bollywood. And although Waiting City is mainly directed at Western audiences, I suspect that it will be more accessible to Indian audiences as a happier union of the two movie styles.
Increasingly, films are promoting India and travel abroad as a way to expand one’s spiritual horizons; the new Julia Roberts film, Eat, Pray, Love, based on the book of the same name by Elizabeth Gilbert, is a case in point. But, unlike such big budget Hollywood films and their trendy, token spirituality, Waiting City is a deep exploration of the richness of both Western (Catholicism) and Eastern spirituality. Above all, though, it is a story about love: a beautiful — and at times hilarious — reflection on marriage, what it means to love and the preciousness of children.
Rating: Parents and teachers are advised that the film is rated M, that there is one mild to medium sex scene and some mild language.
Lucy Smith is a book reviewer for Portico Books and Fine Stationery based in Sydney.