May 14, 2008

Before the Rains

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Underneath the silky-rich tapestry of jungle mists and political upheaval woven together into the last days of the British Raj, Before the Rains actually tells that age-old story of the tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive. This Tribeca Film Festival entry begins with the illicit affair between English planter Moores (Linus Roache) and his maid Sajani (Nandita Das), each married to another. When word about their clandestine liaison travels, Moores weasels out by sending Sajani away in order to avoid the wrath of the tribal village that supplies manpower to his construction project. But Sajani’s passion is all-consuming, and she would rather die than have her love denied. And from that point on, every turn the story takes is for the worse.

Although billed as a Merchant Ivory production, Before the Rains is even more stunning to look at than one would expect. Making his English directorial debut, Santosh Sivan brings to the film a music video sensibility previously seen in his Bollywood efforts such as Asoka. And this is not such a bad thing when you just want to cool off in a movie theater and experience an hour and a half of breezy escapist eye candy. But aside from the waterfalls and wet saris, it soon becomes apparent that the film actually marks a significant departure for Mr. Sivan as it starts tackling one Bollywood taboo after another, from kissing to suicide. It would be surprising if the film could find an audience at all in India.

In addition to Mr. Sivan’s arresting visuals, Before the Rains boasts a first-rate cast. Jennifer Ehle, who here plays Moores’s wife Laura, is just always a pleasure to watch no matter which thankless role she’s stuck in. But the impressive production values and acting talent simply can’t make up for a yawner of a screenplay. Even if you haven’t seen the trailer that basically gives the entire film away, you get a sense of where Before the Rains is headed practically as soon as it’s underway.

© Copyright 2008 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.