As a travelogue, Santosh Sivan's Before the Rains is both ravishing and lyrically picturesque. Each sumptuous shot is carefully composed to maximize the exotic beauty of its 1930s colonial Indian setting and the charisma of its lead actors. The film practically beckons the audience to hop on Travelocity and book a flight to southern India.
As a dramatic film, however, this adaptation of Somerset Maugham's story of illicit love is a tepid, turgid and uninvolving melodrama. As political metaphor it's worse, trading subtlety for a cricket-bat-to-the-face message about race and colonialism.
English plantation owner Henry Moores (Linus Roache) has just taken out a sizable loan from a British bank to build a road to transport his teas and spices. He's also indulging in a little hanky-panky with his beautiful housekeeper Sajani (Nandita Das), who's married to an abusive thug in the nearby village. When a pair of young boys stumbles across Sajani's tryst, things quickly spiral out of control. Soon, Henry's faithful assistant T.K. (Rahul Bose) is trying to save the girl from her husband while protecting his boss's reputation. Unfortunately, the pistol Henry gave him as reward for his loyalty goes off and, well, tragic complications ensue.
While points should be given for hiring a director indigenous to India, it's a shame that this Merchant-Ivory production (made three years after Merchant's death and with no involvement from James Ivory) is yet another in a long line of pasty-white-Brits-in-the-sweltering-jungle flicks. There's adultery and betrayal and misplaced loyalties and none of it generates much interest because Sivan and his screenwriters never pick a central character or point of view.
It's always encouraging to see a film that eschews villainy and focuses on real human folly, and it's clear that Before the Rains would like to see itself as a passionate drama of love gone wrong while commenting on racial and cultural disconnection. Unfortunately, the film's three principal characters are so shallowly rendered, so simplistic in their desires and motivations, that it's hard to see the forest for the trees. Henry is frustratingly opaque, making it impossible to tell whether he's a hopeless romantic or selfish scumbag. T.K. is the sweaty but inexplicably devoted manservant who might be a misled idealist or manipulated fool. He's never given the chance to show doubt or voice an opinion and so we are clueless as to why he makes the decisions he does. And poor Sajani is lovely to look at but quickly pushed aside to focus on the men's furrowed brows and concerned stares.
Somerset Maugham's stories aren't known for their sophisticated plots or enlightening sociopolitical subtext. They are relentless in their emotional arm-twisting, wallowing in the misery of love scorned, friendship betrayed and dreams dashed. Passion and anger and despair are often brought to a fever pitch as the characters are forced to confront how deep their love or sorrow runs. Sivan's Before the Rains would rather wander his lush native jungles than travel the story's romantic road to ruin. Perhaps he should consider a job with National Geographic.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.