British plantation owner and colonialist extraordinaire Henry Moores (Linus Roache) fancies himself the cowboy of Kerala, cavorting around the jungle with his Indian mistress, Sajani (Nandita Das) as he makes plans to expand his operations by branching out into spices: "Today, tea; tomorrow...cinnamon!" Coyly placed portents (a crushed robin's nest, a prominently displayed pistol) assure us that something is destined to go awry, and indeed, Henry's life begins to unravel almost immediately: Labor unrest thwarts his plan to build a transport road, even as his sharp-eyed wife (the wonderfully headstrong Jennifer Ehle) joins him in India and Sajani's brutal husband starts to suspect that she's been unfaithful. Henry is less a character than a metaphor for imperialism; despite his buttoned-up bravado, he can't face the consequences of his carelessness with both Sajani and Kerala itself. As you might expect from a Merchant-Ivory production, Before the Rains is saddled with a predictable lushness—even a streak of blood on a dirty window is aestheticized until it looks like stained glass—and the sensuality here can crowd out the sense. Still, director Santosh Sivan imparts a vastness and a sense of wonder to the film, qualities reminiscent of a Thomas Cole painting: They remind you why the Brits thought conquering India was a good idea in the first place.
Ehle (center) is at the center of a colonial storm.
Opens Fri., May 30 at Seven Gables. Rated PG-13. 98 minutes.