Before the Rains (PG-13)
Kimball's Twin Peak
The time is 1937. The place is southern India. The presenter is Merchant Ivory Productions. The movie is pretty boring.
Pretty, that is, and boring. You know the drill. Doomed love, damnation of British imperialism, class conflict and cinematography lots and lots of cinematography. True, technically, there's only 98 minutes' worth, but it sure feels like more.
Just look at all those establishing shots, those pulls of focus. Here's the gorgeous jungle, it says but hang on, here it is again, from a different angle, and yep, still gorgeous. Or: This foreground is beautiful, but ah, so is that background.
It's easy to blame the beautiful banality of Before the Rains on Santosh Sivan, who directed the film apparently as an excuse to be its cinematographer, but that's not really fair. Blame Cathy Rabin, too, for her perfunctory screenplay, a too-prudent culturally transposed adaptation of the Red Roofs portion of Israeli filmmaker Danny Verete's Yellow Asphalt: Three Desert Stories.
Here, the drama, which is to say melodrama, begins when a comely couple visits a "forbidden" grove to acquire fresh honey for their tea and to make love. How splendid, except that he (Linus Roache) is a British landowner and she (Nandita Das) is his Indian servant, and they're both married but not to each other. He also has an unswervingly loyal manservant (Rahul Bose), and winds up pretty much screwing that guy, too. (Yes, in a different way.)
The woman's husband abuses her, but so, in a way, does her ignorantly ambitious colonial aggressor boyfriend. He has a spice plantation in the works and has employed the locals to build a road through the mountainous, monsoon-prone and beautifully photographed jungle. He is under pressure, what with the trusting wife and young son (Jennifer Ehle and Leopold Benedict), the untrusting financier (John Standing), and of course the burgeoning Indian independence movement.
Suffice it to say, tension will mount. Mistakes will be made. The pistol given as a gift will, well, keep on giving.
Whether or not its weird echo of a crucial scene from Monster's Ball was intended, Before the Rains is supposed to be tragic but the emphasis is on the supposition, not on the tragedy. With their entitlement and good clothes and imported bathtubs and Victrolas, the Brits are reduced to obvious allegorical signifiers as bluntly as are the tribalist mobs of torch-bearing Indian simpletons.
Compounding the problem, each of the actors' performances seems fully committed, but only to going through its own given motions. Thus Sivan delivers what should have been an emotionally or politically stirring tale with just enough uncritical sincerity to render it disappointingly inert.
Which must explain why the Before the Rains press notes include urgings from Mira Nair, who blurbs it as "a hothouse of sensuality, empire, class and guilt," and Deepak Chopra, who compares it to In the Bedroom, Little Children and The Savages.
Um ... yeah ... so did we mention that it's really well shot?