Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB. France/India/USA, 1951. Oriental International Films. Screenplay by Rumer Godden, Jean Renoir, based on the novel by Rumer Godden. Cinematography by Claude Renoir. Produced by Kenneth McEldowney, Jean Renoir. Music by M.A. Partha Sarathy. Production Design by Eugène Lourié. Film Editing by George Gale.
The opportunity to make a movie about India that included neither elephants nor a tiger hunt was what director Jean Renoir said attracted him to this particular project, a low-key coming-of-age drama set on the Bengal River. Should he have more subtly meant that he wasn’t looking for the colonial perspective of India that dominated movies set in so beautiful a country, he can hardly be accused of succeeding considering it centres around a British family (a nice one, but British all the same) and the only main Indian character is a mildly involved half-breed. What really keeps this film from reaching the heights of Renoir’s best work, however, is a cluster of wooden performances and some stilted dialogue, adapted by Renoir himself (whose command of the English language wasn’t good enough for this) and Rumer Godden, author of the original novel (she also wrote the superb Black Narcissus). Neither blessed with the whimsy of The Rules Of the Game or the political, dramatic motivation of Grand Illusion, the story is told from the point of view of the family’s eldest (of six) children Harriet (Patricia Walters), who is thrown directly from childhood to maturity by the arrival of her neighbour’s strapping American cousin. Unfortunately, every character is so pale and the proceedings are all so pleasant and polite that nothing really makes an impression other than the stupefyingly beautiful cinematography by Claude Renoir (the director’s nephew). Rarely has a colour film popped off the screen with the gorgeous, ripe hues that fill the eye for two hours, but the story lacks the slightest compulsion and never involves its audience one way or the other. One would love to have seen what the Powell-Pressburger team could have done with the story, particularly in giving the dialogue a little more oomph.