When it 'Rains,' it pours on dull period-drama cliches

Review -- C:

June 06, 2008|By Jessica Reaves

By now, anyone who buys a ticket to a Merchant-Ivory picture should have a pretty good sense of what's in store: two hours (at the very least) of meticulously choreographed, lushly photographed period drama. Dialogue, no matter how heated the subject matter, will be delivered through clenched jaws, in perfectly modulated (Home Counties) accents. British imperialism will be (once again) declared morally reprehensible, despite its important contributions to the world of interior design. And, finally, there will be an illicit, sweaty affair that challenges established class and/or racial conventions.

Fans of this formula will be delighted to know that Before the Rains is faithful to every point; so much so that it's possible to imagine first-time director Santosh Sivan obsessing over a checklist, only occasionally wondering how his plot and characters are doing (not so well, thanks for asking).

Before the Rains, which is based on the Israeli film Red Roofs, is the story of Henry Moores, the pasty-faced embodiment of English colonialism: self-interested, entitled and desperate to make a name for himself in southern India's spice trade. When we meet him, everything is going according to plan. His business is taking off, his wife is conveniently out of the country and he's engaged in a little extracurricular nookie with a lovely local girl. In his work and at home, he treats his staff with the benevolent condescension and cultural ignorance of an accomplished, comfortable imperialist.

Soon, however, Moores' attempts to build a road are threatened by the twin forces of his ill-advised lust for Sajani, the aforementioned young beauty, and the rising tide of India's independence movement. His deputy, T.K. (Rahul Bose), does what he can to buffer the tensions between Moores and the locals, but when the Englishman makes a series of terrible mistakes, T.K.'s loyalty is pushed to its limits.

Moores is played by Linus Roache (of Priest, and currently, NBC's Law & Order), whose bland, blond good looks are the perfect foil to the dark beauty of the ill-fated Sajani (played with campy abandon by Nandita Das).

Meanwhile, Jennifer Ehle, her hair the color and texture of straw, is stuck in the unfortunate role of Moores' unfailingly supportive and accommodating wife.

(In this story, true suffering is reserved for the blameless).

Now for the good stuff: The scenery is absolutely stunning. The vistas - of forests, villages, mist-topped mountains - are spectacular, and the camera work is unerring. This is all to be expected, as director Sivan, who also photographed the film, is best known as an accomplished cinematographer.

Lest I give the wrong impression, I'll be clear: The movie's not awful. It's merely disappointing.

And the problem isn't just that the material is cliched and vaguely offensive (sensuous, superstitious natives tempting - and then bestowing forgiveness upon - uptight Westerners). It's more that the plot is incredibly predictable, the score is manipulative and the denouement completely unsatisfying. I can sit through cliched and even offensive (to a point). Just leave me with a little bit of mystery, an iota of suspense. That's all I ask.

Jessica Reaves writes for the Chicago Tribune.

Before the Rains

(Roadside Attractions) Starring Linus Roache, Rahul Bose, Nandita Das, Jennifer Ehle. Directed by Santosh Sivan. Rated PG-13 for violent content and a scene of sexuality. Time 98 minutes.

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