You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Newton’

A hapless, rigidly rule-abiding official is sent to a strife-riven Indian tribal village to conduct an election, despite local apathy.

Rajkummar Rao, Anjali Patil, Pankaj Tripathi, Raghubir Yadav (Hindi, Gondi dialogue)

1 hour 45 minutes

With just enough social relevance to lend a blush of importance, but without the kind of spikiness that could threaten to burst its light dramedy bubble, “Newton,” India’s Oscar submission in the foreign language film category, is a good-natured charmer that’s just a little too cozy to satisfy its billing as satire. A warm portrait of a stiff-backed young election official learning that principles don’t always mesh with practicality in the Indian democratic process, its modest story is elevated by an ingratiating turn from Rajkummar Rao, embodying the kind of lovable doofus that Tom Hanks might have played in an American analog a few years ago. Directed by Amit V Masurkar, (whose last movie, the energetic “Suleimani Keeda,” carved a successful festival path) the film, about the difficulties of boots-on-the-ground democracy is, of all things, easy: easy to watch, easy to enjoy and easy to leave with one’s preconceptions wholly unchallenged.

Newton (Rao) is a serious-minded young civil servant who decides to prove his dedication to the democratic ideal by volunteering for a gig no one else wants — overseeing a ramshackle polling station in the middle of a rebel-infested nowhere, so that a handful of locals can participate in an election about which they know little and care less. Earlier scenes have already established him as a man of unyielding principle who is nonetheless caught between tradition and progressiveness: He rejects a marriage arranged by his doting parents once he discovers the girl is underage. But Newton will find his ethical rigidity bent to the breaking point in the jungle, with a motley crew of assistants, including irreverent old-hand Loknath (Raghubir Yadav); and Malko (Anjali Patil), a pretty young local woman brought in to facilitate and translate for the villagers, who don’t understand Hindi.

As schematically familiar as that set-up sounds, “Newton” thankfully avoids most of the standard romantic comedy cliches, though the framework for a less nuanced, less culturally specific and more formulaic U.S. remake, set in rural Alaska or remote New Mexico for instance, certainly exists. But a remake would be a shame: “Newton” is at its best when it’s at its most idiosyncratic — when its ragtag characters are grumbling and hacking their way through fetid jungle or lethargically trading life philosophies to while away the time in the untrafficked makeshift station.

Disgruntled and cynical army captain Atma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi) tasked with protecting Newton and his team from rebel attack, soon emerges as the film’s chief antagonist, as if this bluntly pragmatic soldier’s ideological opposition to Newton’s comparatively effete city-boy aura could be any more marked. But really the situation is the enemy — the sheer size and complexity of India as it tries to maneuver the machinery of the world’s largest democracy within its riotously diverse, often mutually mistrustful classes and populations, all of whom have their own agendas.

Regional critics have been quick to praise the film’s downplayed presentation. And Swapnil S Sonawane’s restrained cinematography and Naren Chandravarkar and Benedict Taylor’s unobtrusive music (bar one nice singing sequence that is more or less organically engineered), as well as the understated performances and lived-in production design, certainly set “Newton” apart from the bright, bold excesses of Bollywood. Yet if formally “Newton” cleaves more to the model of the international or American indie, its message is perhaps most pertinent to its nation of origin, where the film has already done strong numbers. 

It could have been a timely, relevant investigation into electoral malfeasance — a topical theme in many corners of the world right now. But it is undercut by a rather mealymouthed conclusion that portrays Newton’s bureaucratic intransigence not quite as heroic, but at least quixotically noble, and while its sincere belief in the value of democratic due process may resonate with some viewers internationally, younger audiences might find its resolutely nonpartisan politics a little too comfortable for comfort. The film’s ultimately uncontroversial central tenet is that it’s not how you vote but that you vote that matters. But, certainly Stateside, where “Newton” is tilting at Oscar’s windmills, how you vote(d) feels like the crux of so much heated discourse that the film’s gently Utopian faith in democracy for its own sake seems far removed from the current American moment.

Film Review: 'Newton'

Reviewed online, Amsterdam, Nov. 22, 2017. (In Berlin Film Festival, Forum.) Running time: 105 MIN.

Production: (India) A Drishyam Films production. (International sales: Drishyam Films, Mumbai.) Producers: Manish Mundra, Pramila Mundra.

Crew: Director: Amit V Masurkar. Screenplay: Mayank Tewari, Masurkar. Camera (color): Swapnil S Sonawane. Editor: Shweta Venkat. Music: Naren Chandravarkar, Benedict Taylor.

With: Rajkummar Rao, Anjali Patil, Pankaj Tripathi, Raghubir Yadav (Hindi, Gondi dialogue)

More Film

  • Missing Link Laika Studios

    ‘Missing Link’ Again Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Annapurna Pictures claims the top spot in spending for the second week in a row with “Missing Link.” Ads placed for the animated film had an estimated media value of $5.91 million through Sunday for [...]

  • Little Woods

    Film Review: 'Little Woods'

    So much of the recent political debate has focused on the United States’ southern border, and on the threat of illegal drugs and criminals filtering up through Mexico. But what of the north, where Americans traffic opiates and prescription pills from Canada across a border that runs nearly three times as long? “Little Woods” opens [...]

  • Beyonce's Netflix Deal Worth a Whopping

    Beyonce's Netflix Deal Worth a Whopping $60 Million (EXCLUSIVE)

    Netflix has become a destination for television visionaries like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, with deals worth $100 million and $250 million, respectively, and top comedians like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle ($40 million and $60 million, respectively). The streaming giant, which just announced it’s added nearly 10 million subscribers in Q1, is honing in [...]

  • Roman Polanski extradition

    Academy Responds to Roman Polanski: 'Procedures Were Fair and Reasonable'

    UPDATE: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has responded to a lawsuit from director Roman Polanski that claimed he was unfairly expelled from the organization behind the Oscars. “The procedures taken to expel Mr. Polanski were fair and reasonable. The Academy stands behind its decision as appropriate,” a spokesperson said. The Academy’s statement [...]

  • Lorraine Warren dead

    Lorraine Warren, Paranormal Investigator Who Inspired 'The Conjuring,' Dies at 92

    Lorraine Warren, paranormal investigator and demonologist whose life inspired franchises like “The Conjuring” and “The Amityville Horror,” has died. She was 92. Warren’s son-in-law Tony Spera confirmed the news. Spera said on Facebook, “She died peacefully in her sleep at home.” He continued, “She was a remarkable, loving, compassionate and giving soul. To quote Will [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content