The Waiting City.

Starring Radha Mitchell, Joel Edgerton, Samrat Chakrabarti and Isabel Lucas. Directed by Claire McCarthy.
Rated M (mature themes and coarse language). 108 mins.

Sydney writer-director Claire McCarthy’s experience eight years ago as a volunteer worker at Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity orphanage in India provides the inspiration and invaluable background knowledge for her warm, insightful, well-crafted film The Waiting City.

The title refers to the impossibility of hurrying things in India. Everything takes time, particularly where paperwork and protocols are concerned, as young Australian married couple Ben and Fiona find when they arrive in Kolkata (Calcutta) to collect baby Lakshmi, whom they have been negotiating to adopt for two years.
Fiona is a high-powered corporate lawyer and workaholic. Ben is a laidback guitarist-singer who had enjoyed success in the pop industry before a medical condition caused him to drop out. They seem a balanced, well-suited couple, but their different temperaments are the first sign of possible problems in their relationship that are triggered by the waiting game they are forced to play. Her ceaseless phone calls, e-mails and video conferences about a case going on back in Australia start to get on his nerves. She is irritated by his casual demeanour, particularly after he bumps into an attractive Aussie musician friend (Isabel Lucas), with whom he shares an impromptu jam session with some Indian musicians.
They have a tiny photograph of baby Lakshmi, but when are they going to meet her? As appointments are not honoured and meetings postponed, the couple start to bicker, and Fiona calls into question her suitability to be Lakshmi’s mother. Are they adopting a baby as a way of papering over cracks in a troubled marriage?
As a study of a relationship and, by extension, the process of adoption, The Waiting City is an impressive, captivating achievement. Cleverly constructed, it develops almost like a thriller, drawing the audience to be constantly anxious about the next move and what will be revealed.

As an observation of the differences between the West and mystical India, it is equally satisfying. McCarthy is uniquely qualified on this subject, and you feel we are seeing a very truthful look at the way visitors can be alternately charmed and intimidated by Indian culture. There is documentary realism in way the camera shows a wedding and a funeral and follows the actors into the streets of Kolkota, including bustling scenes during a celebration (the Hindu Durga Puja festival), and McCarthy has a keen eye for oddities: a man squatting in a gutter brushing his teeth, a threadbare hotel named Delite Luxery Resort (sic) in which an unexpected amenity is a live chicken in the bed.

An important character is Krishna (Samrat Chakrabarti), a young hotel employee who becomes Ben and Fiona’s unofficial guide and a confidant of both. He comes from the same village where little Lakshmi was born, and takes the prospective parents on an important trip there so they can absorb something of the baby’s early circumstances. Krishna bluntly asks the sort of questions we want answered, and he acts as sort of sounding board to allow the characters to open up.

Faith plays a part in this story, too. Ben is at least a nominal Catholic, whereas Fiona is not a believer. But the way India accommodates the coexistence of Hindu, Muslim and Christian causes her to question her own agnosticism when things reach crisis point.

The performances are exceptional.  Mitchell and Edgerton, who both have tremendous ease in front of the cameras, are totally convincing as the married couple working through their problems, and the Indian supporting players are especially well chosen for their roles, notably Tillotama Shome as an orphanage nun, Sister Tesilla. Kudos too for the work of Australians Denson Baker (cinematographer) and Michael Yezerski (composer).

The Waiting City, claimed as the first Australian production to shot entirely in India, really touches the heart and is a splendid achievement by all concerned.

Hopscotch  Out July 15 2010

Mr Jim Murphy is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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