[Film Review] The River (1951)


Title: The River
Year: 1951
Country: UK, France, India, USA
Language: English
Genre: Drama, Romance
Director: Jean Renoir
Jean Renoir
Rumer Godden
based on the novel of Rumer Godden
Music: M.A. Partha Sarathy
Cinematography: Claude Renoir
Patricia Walters
Thomas E. Breen
Adrienne Corri
Esmond Knight
Nora Swinburne
Arthur Shields
Suprova Mukerjee
Rating: 7.1/10


Jean Renoir embraces Technicolor for the first time in his adaptation of Rumer Godden’s coming-of-age novel THE RIVER, with the latter collaborating on the screenplay. The story takes place in Bengal, India, a teenage girl named Harriet (Walters) is the eldest child of a middle-class British family living near the riverbank of Ganges, her father (an one-eyed Knight) runs a jute mill, and her mother (Swinburne) is expecting a child no. 7.

It is a carefree scenario, growing up in the natural inculcation of an exotically profound Hindu culture while carrying on an genteel upbringing, sometimes, it conspires to be a false or at least parochial impression of the land and its people, which doesn’t take up too much space in the story-line, the only native Indian who has a speaking part is Nan (Mukerjee), the family’s convivial but gossipy nanny, and the rest sustains as an ethnic curiosity to meet the Westerners’ eyes, although beguilingly and entrancingly so, after all, what we are allowed to watch is the smugly colonial tip of the Indian iceberg.

The plot revolves around Harriet’s budding affection towards the guest of their neighbor Mr. John (Shields), an one-legged American Captain John (Breen), who takes his time in lolling on a foreign land, to find some peace with his battlefield past and physical disability, look for a new resolution for life. As John is the only eligible white young man on the market, to her chagrin, a besotted, but fairly plain-looking Harriet has a losing game against her rival, the maturer and more zaftig Valerie (Corri), by the way, a British girl too is also her best friend. And throughout this picturesque film, it is Harriet’s voice-over that guides viewers traversing her prepubescent triviality (poems, indeed), to listen to her inner voice, to sympathize her unrequited love, to find empathy in this garden-variety tale.

Wielded as an emotional clincher, a tragic incident materializes as one downside of having a brood of many caused by adult negligence, but here also emanates a disquieting undertow to pinpoint the virulence of a foreign society with a local boy standing by as an unwary abetter. And a cheesy solution to get it over is taking the pro-procreation flag, babies are being borne all the time.

The cast is mixed with adult professionals and amateur players, but comes off barely adequate, a major gripe is the narrative ellipsis in the story of Melanie (Radha), the mixed-race daughter of Mr. John, who stands out (there is not much competition though) with a massively pleasurable Ganesha-courting dancing sequence, but whose dislike of herself, waffling identity never been considerably mapped out as a pre-eminent counterpoint of Harriet’s more orthodox background.

So, all above sounds like a pejorative critique against a film who has earned a hallowed reputation since its genesis, yet, it is as plain as the nose on one’s face, the picture’s eye-catching glamour and aural accompaniments are undeniably supreme, technologically speaking. And it is smart enough for Mr. Renoir to treat it as a philosophical prose other than a heady narration of banal proceedings, only a 60-odd-year later, its allure fades away slightly due to the original novel’s awkward stance on a colonized land and Renoir’s condoning deference.


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