The names Merchant Ivory are, typically, cinematic shorthand for elegant, lavish spectacles of barely repressed romance and starchy period drama. Indian director Santosh Sivan's English-language debut Before the Rains is no exception, although the "Merchant Ivory presents" tag is more figurative than literal (sort of like those films "Quentin Tarantino presents" from time to time). Nevertheless, its approach and presentation certainly feel of a piece with the Merchant Ivory catalog and while it's far from perfect, there are a few pleasures to be had.
Sivan, directed from a screenplay by Cathy Rabin, sketches the broad strokes from the lush opening frames -- British spice trader Henry Moores (Linus Roache, just a bit too bland here) is overseeing the construction of an extensive road that will provide access to the treasures of India's jungles. It's 1937 and unrest is brewing, as Indian citizens begin to resent the British presence in their country. Henry's ambitious right-hand man T.K. (Rahul Bose) looks up to him and bites his tongue as the married father takes up with Sajani (Nandita Das), a housekeeper he romances while his wife Laura (Jennifer Ehle -- and where on earth has she been?) is away overseas.
As expected in melodramas of this sort, Henry's blossoming affair must be squelched upon his wife's return, but also to prevent Sajani from being ostracized or, worse, killed. Only when Sajani's own husband discovers a hint of infidelity do things begin to spiral out of Henry and, by extension, T.K.'s control. While the plot doesn't try anything too original, the bittersweet conclusion may surprise some viewers.
The chief reason to seek out Before the Rains? Director Sivan's utterly breathtaking cinematography (yup, he even shoots his own movies) -- more than once, I found myself pausing the film simply to take in Sivan's exquisitely framed and lit compositions that put the beauty of India on full display (the film was shot on location in India).
It's not a particularly gripping film, nor is its tale of doomed romance and class struggle terribly compelling (unfortunately, some of the blame falls at the feet of Das, whose work doesn't quite click). Yet Before the Rains is devastatingly beautiful, a lyrically photographed film that, if nothing else, provides some of the most sumptuous eye candy in recent memory.
Presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.78:1, this anamorphic widescreen transfer does justice to the gorgeous cinematography, rendering it with vivid colors, inky blacks and crisp definition. Dusty road construction, skin-soaking rains and misty mountain mornings all look great, without any discernible hint of print damage or other visual flaw.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track gets a few chances to strut its stuff throughout Before the Rains, from ambient surround effects (check out the scene where Henry and Sajani scavenge honey or the climactic rainstorm) to Mark Kilian's bleakly beautiful score. Dialogue, in a mixture of English and Malayalam, is heard clearly, without distortion or drop-out. An optional Dolby 2.0 stereo track is included, as are optional English and Spanish subtitles.
Sivan and Roache sit for a commentary track (which is oddly not promoted anywhere on the disc's packaging) that covers the usual bases with charm and insight, while the film's theatrical trailer (presented in anamorphic widescreen) completes the disc.
Before the Rains is not a particularly gripping film, nor is its tale of doomed romance and class struggle terribly compelling. Yet Before the Rains is devastatingly beautiful, a lyrically photographed film that, if nothing else, provides some of the most sumptuous eye candy in recent memory. Recommended.