Before the Rains
2008, PG-13, 98 min. Directed by Santosh Sivan. Starring Linus Roache, Nandita Das, Rahul Bose, Lal Paul, Jennifer Ehle.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 11, 2008
The spice must flow, yes, but also the blood in this exquisitely photographed but emotionally overwrought and ultimately tedious Merchant Ivory presentation of life in the southern Indian province of Kerala, during the twilight of the British Raj. Sivan, who helmed the considerably more gripping The Terrorist, is his own cinematographer here, and his eye is as painterly as they come. If you're in the mood for explosively verdant mountain vistas and pseudo-societal signifiers that include torch-bearing midnight mobs and powerful white imperialists failing crown and country, there's no need to unfurl your bumbershoot: Sivan drenches the screen with arresting, positively humid images of the seductive torpor of village life and the mannered caddishness of the arrogant British overlords. We know how that turned out (and if you don't, Sir Ben Kingsley will be happy to Yoda-fy Gandhi for you), so Sivan focuses on the melodramatics that have made Merchant Ivory Productions the go-to gang for drowsy period stories that feel like they ought to include an intermission for tea midway through. Roache plays the British spice-master Henry Moores, who, aided and abetted by his native-born and enormously conflicted right hand, T.K. (Bose), plans to build a road through the near-vertical greenery abutting his Earl Grey plantation. He's also busy carrying on a lusty romance with his married housemaid, Sajani (Das), which, because we are offered a shot of a dingy sidearm early on, can obviously come to no good. Indeed, it's the sort of forbidden love that dare not speak its name, lest it be turned into a Merchant Ivory Production or possibly a eye-glazing riff on the seminal PBS yawn-bomb Upstairs, Downstairs. Events threaten to get interesting when Moores' veddy British wife and young son arrive on the continent and set up house and hearth, but then Sivan spies a composition-with-elephant he finds pretty, and the film returns to period-travelogue mode. Roache, who seems to be playing Rupert Everett playing house, can't match the whirlpool of emotions that Bose puts out, nor for that matter can Das, whose lovestruck untouchable is nonetheless oddly touching. As an extended metaphor on the perils of imperialism and the colonization of both land and heart, Before the Rains works just fine, but as a love story run afoul of the times, it's a soggy affair.