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

  • Jodie Foster'Money Monster' photocall, Palais, 69th

    Film News Roundup: Jodie Foster to Direct, Star in Remake of Icelandic Thriller

    In today’s film news roundup, Jodie Foster is remaking Iceland’s “Woman at War,” the Art Directors Guild honors production designers Anthony Masters and Ben Carre, “47 Meters Down: Uncaged” gets cast and Melissa Takal directs “New Year New You” for Hulu. PROJECT ANNOUNCEMENT More Reviews Concert Review: Maxwell Brings Down the House at Rapturous Hometown [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Jake Gyllenhaal to Star in Remake of Denmark's Oscar Entry 'The Guilty' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Bold Films, and Jake Gyllenhaal and Riva Marker’s Nine Stories banner have acquired the rights to remake the Danish thriller “The Guilty,” with Gyllenhaal attached to star. The pic won the world cinema audience award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and was also named one of the top five foreign language films of 2018 by [...]

  • Toxic Avenger

    'Toxic Avenger' Movie in the Works at Legendary

    Legendary Entertainment is developing “The Toxic Avenger” as a movie after acquiring the feature film rights. Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz of Troma Entertainment will serve as producers. Alex Garcia and Jay Ashenfelter will oversee for Legendary. More Reviews Concert Review: Maxwell Brings Down the House at Rapturous Hometown Show Film Review: 'Jirga' Kaufman and [...]

  • Constance Wu

    'Crazy Rich Asians' Star Constance Wu in Negotiations for Romantic Comedy

    “Crazy Rich Asians” star Constance Wu is in talks to join Sony’s Screen Gems’ untitled romantic comedy, with Elizabeth Banks and Max Handelman producing. “GLOW” actress Kimmy Gatewood is making her feature directorial debut on the project. She will be directing from a Savion Einstein script about a woman who becomes pregnant with two babies [...]

  • Maggie Gyllenhaal AoA

    Maggie Gyllenhaal on Why a Woman Director Doesn't Automatically Make a Story More Feminine

    Having a female director doesn’t automatically make a story more feminine, says “The Kindergarten Teacher” star Maggie Gyllenhaal, but when it comes to her film with director Sara Colangelo, she says the female narrative is fully encapsulated. “Just because something is written or directed by a woman doesn’t necessarily make it a feminine articulation,” she says [...]

  • Kevin Hart Hurricane Harvey

    Academy Looks Warily at Oscar Host Options as Board Meeting Looms

    Kevin Hart’s abrupt departure as Oscars host has left the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences scrambling to find someone to take the gig. As of now, the situation remains fluid as the group’s leadership explores options, including going host-less, individuals familiar with the situation told Variety. The Academy was blindsided by Hart’s announced departure Thursday [...]

  • Regina King Maggie Gyllenhaal

    Maggie Gyllenhaal, Regina King on Intimacy Experts: 'I Could Have Used the Help When I Was Younger'

    Maggie Gyllenhaal’s sex-trade industry series “The Deuce” features one job that’s unlike any other in television: an intimacy expert. During her Variety Actors on Actors interview with Regina King, “The Kindergarten Teacher” actress explained how the strange role is actually important in helping young actresses stand up for themselves, especially when it comes to sex scenes on [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content