River

2 ratings (2 Epinions reviews)
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Scenic but boring Raj movie

Sep 9, 2003
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Rated a Very Helpful Review
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Pros:travelogue aspects

Cons:plot (what plot?), stock characters (what actors?), orientalism (what Indians?), muddy sound

The Bottom Line: Maybe it's a "chick flick," but I think it's just boring, racist nonsense. Still, there are some striking images: it is a Renoir film.


Plot Details: This opinion reveals everything about the movie's plot.

The great Jean Renoir's first color film — based on Rumer Godden's once popular novel The River and shot in Bengal in 1950 with mostly locals plus a few deservedly obscure actors — is another very visual, scenic and static movie with stock figures and barely a wisp of a plot. I like character-driven movies and I like plot-drive movies, but I rarely like movies that have neither interesting characters nor interesting plots.

Renoir was fascinated by steps going down to rivers in India and the best part of the movie is the travelogue footage of the steps and a muddy river. There's a lot of garishly (Technicolor) filmed "local color," too, mostly backdrop to a tedious tale of an English family with five daughters and one young son in India. The stasis of everyday life for the girls is stirred up by the arrival of an American veteran with a prosthetic leg. I have no idea why he showed up there or what he planned to do. (He's supposed to be the cousin of the family's next-door neighbor, but does not seem to have ever met him before.) All of the girls in the family (the credits do no supply a family name) plus the half-English, half-Indian daughter of the household are enamored with Captain John (Thomas E. Breen), though he does not much resemble a movie heart throb.

The lone son, Bogey, is almost as remarkably uninterested in a male from the outside world with war experiences as his sisters (down to the age of about 5) are enamored with him. Bogey is more interested in snake charming (with predictable results).

Renoir's film memoir records that when he read Godden's novel, "the story seemed to me to offer the basis of a film of high quality which would nevertheless be acceptable to the Hollywood film magnates—children in a romantic setting, the discovery of love by small girls, the death of a little boy who was too fond of snakes, the foolish dignity of an English family living on India like a plum on a peach-tree; above all, India itself with its exotic dances and garments. ... The one thing lacking was a story." That was a lack the he and Godden (splitting screenplay "credit" failed to remedy). There is a lot of voice-over explanation of Indian matters and the narrator's reflections on her younger self. Yes, a very visual film by a Renoir that tells more than it shows!

"Mother India" swallows up all the survivors to passivity, including the returned mixed-blood young woman. Renoir also noted that what the Indians resented, more than being conquered, was being ignored by the British Raj. In filming in India after Independence, he did not altogether ignore the "natives," but they are "exotic" background to an extent greater than in films like "Drums" from colonial times. It is not clear whether the present of the film is before or after Independence (I suppose it to be before only because Godden was an adult by 1948 and I assume her book to be autobiographical. If so and since she was born in 1907, Capt. Johns is then a maimed survivor of the First World War. BTW, the first film of a Godden novel, the Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger "Black Narcissus" also involves a bunch of overwrought English women in but mostly ignoring that they are in India. It is also beautifully photographed, but has professional actors, notably Deborah Kerr and Jean Simmons.)

"The River" is "Orientalist" in the most pejorative sense with standard claims of timeless Oriental culture and unquestioned white supremacy. The movie is mostly boring and embarrassing, though the non-actress in the central role of Harriet (Patricia Walters), who did not have any further film career, is good as the gawky future writer suffering first love.



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