One of my favorite scenes in The River comes late in the proceedings. All of the film's major characters drift off around the same time and indulge in a lazy afternoon nap. The camera lingers over each one of them, presenting a series of serene images that feel like idyllic paintings. Finally, one of the characters flutters her eyes and slowly begins to rise. We return to the plot, and life continues. It's a standout sequence, but also a typical one: the film draws long breaths between its scenes of gentle drama, creating a cinematic ebb and flow that proves strangely irresistible.
The river the title refers to is the Ganges, which serves as a backdrop for the movie. The film centers on the life of a British family living on the banks of that river. The Father (Esmond Knight, Hamlet) runs a local mill, and The Mother (Nora Swineburn, Quo Vadis) stays at home with her seven children – the most memorable of which is Harriet (Patricia Walters), a free-spirited teenage girl. They also have a live-in nanny (Suprova Mukerjee), who treates the children as if they were here own. These people live a peaceful, pleasant life, full of laughter and love and sunshine and color.
This lovely balance is disrupted with the arrival of Captain John (Thomas Breen, Battleground), a one-legged American war veteran. Despite his disability and his relatively dull personality, Captain John quickly becomes an object of desire for a number of the girls in the village. Harriet falls hard and fast for the captain, and finds herself daydreaming about married life with him. She's too young for such a relationship, but seems happy to ignore such unpleasant realities. Harriet's older friend Valerie (Adrienne Corri, Doctor Zhivago) also has eyes for Captain John, though she does her best not to wear her feelings on her sleeve. Meanwhile, Captain John finds himself drawn to Melanie (Radha Burnier), the half-Indian/half-English daughter of Captain John's cousin (Arthur Shields, The Quiet Man).
There's a good deal of romantic melodrama to be drawn out of that scenario, but director Jean Renoir's portrait of desire and heartbreak tends to avoid sensationalism. He feels deep empathy for these characters, even when they're being selfish or foolish or petty or pathetic. We feel the pain of Harriet's longing despite the fact that we know that she's too young for such a serious relationship, and we feel Captain John's wounded pride when his leg gives out from underneath him during a lighthearted game of catch. The story being told doesn't resolve so much as quietly dissolve, as Renoir fades out of these simple lives as quietly as he faded into them.
The River has faced some occasional criticism over the years for the way it views India through colonial eyes, but the reality isn't quite that simple. Harriet and her siblings were born and raised in India, and they seem to exist on the dividing line between eastern and western culture. Their religious beliefs are a hybrid of Christianity and Hinduism, and their daily life is comprised of a combination of habits both familiar and foreign. The film centers on these characters because it's attempting to provide western viewers of 1951 with an accessible examination of a foreign culture. Renoir's view of India is never condescending or stereotypical - the film is in love with the country and its people, and that love shines through in every frame.
Renoir makes tremendous use of the Technicolor format, highlighting the naturally vivid colors of the village. Director Martin Scorsese has dubbed The River one of the two most beautiful color films ever made (the other being Powell & Pressburger's stunning The Red Shoes), and Wes Anderson was so affected by the film's beauty that he felt compelled to make a film of his own in India (the visually intoxicating and criminally underrated The Darjeeling Limited). The camera movement isn't as elaborate or showy as it is in much of Renoir's other work (partially due to the director's limited resources), but every scene boasts an undeniable natural beauty.
At times, The River has the feel of a travelogue, as frequent narration educates us on the nuances of the culture and fills us in on the personal histories of the film's characters. It frequently sets the ongoing romantic drama aside to make room for scenes like the one in which Harriet tells a folk story about a Hindu marriage (illustrated by some of the film's most memorable visual flourishes). Most of the actors in the film are non-professionals, and there's a natural authenticity to most of the performances as a result. Thomas Breen really did lose his leg in the war, and despite his lack of charisma, his tormented grimaces feel entirely real. You think he's forgettable, until you realize that you can't forget him. This is a powerful film, but its power is strange and subtle. It doesn't bowl you over with a gripping story or with flashy craftsmanship, but quietly draws you into its spell and leaves you feeling as if you've just awoken from a bittersweet dream.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 99 minutes
Release Year: 1951