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Anne is investigating the life of her grand-aunt Olivia, whose destiny has always been shrouded with scandal. The search leads back to the early 1920s, when Olivia, recently married to Douglas, a civil servant in the colonial administration, comes to live with him in India. Slowly, Olivia becomes fascinated by India and by the local ruler, a nawab who combines British distinction with Indian pomp and ruthlessness. This fascination is not without risks: the region is being ransacked by a group of sanguinary bandits, and intrigues are opposing the prejudiced British community led by Major Minnies and Dr. Saunders against the nawab. As Anne delves into the history of her grand-aunt, she is led to reconsider her own life. Written by
Eduardo Casais <firstname.lastname@example.org>
During the 1980s the British entertainment industry was going through a period of fascination with all things Indian, especially with the Raj. This was the decade of Richard Attenborough's "Gandhi", David Lean's "A Passage to India" and the television version of "The Jewel in the Crown" and this one is another in the same vein. There are two intertwined stories. The first is set in the 1920s and deals with an illicit affair between Olivia, the beautiful young wife of a British colonial official and an Indian Nawab. The second, set in the seventies or eighties, deals with Anne, Olivia's great-niece, who travels to India hoping to find out about her great-aunt's life, and while there also has an affair with an Indian man.
A similar device was used in another British film of this period, "The French Lieutenant's Woman", which also switched backwards and forwards between a story set in the past and one set in the present day. There is, however, a difference between the two films in that in "The French Lieutenant's Woman" the present-day story was an invention of the scriptwriters and was not found in John Fowles's original novel; it was inserted to provide a cinematic equivalent to Fowles's strong authorial voice and his famous two alternative endings. In "Heat and Dust" the modern scenes were an integral part of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's book on which the film was based. Her aim seems to have been to compare contemporary attitudes to race and sex with those prevailing in the days of the Raj.
The trick of cross-cutting between two different stories with only a tangential connection between them can be a difficult one to bring off, in literature as well as in the cinema. Neither "The French Lieutenant's Woman" nor "Heat and Dust" works particularly well in this regard. In both cases the story set in the past is the stronger one, partly because it is filmed in a more sumptuous and visually memorable style, and partly because it is more fundamentally serious. We can empathise with Olivia because of the potentially tragic consequences of the course of action she is pursuing; the romance of Anne and Inder Lal seems trivial by comparison. (Inder Lal is cheating on his wife Ritu, but this fact tends to get overlooked).
The makers of "The French Lieutenant's Woman" (in my view the better of the two films) appear to have recognised this problem, because they devote much more attention to the Victorian romance of Charles and Sarah than they do to the contemporary one of Mike and Anna. They were also able to provide a semblance of unity to the film by using the same actors, Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep, to play both sets of lovers. In "Heat and Dust", however, the cross-cutting can be confusing as we constantly move from one story to another. The parallels between the values of the seventies and those of the twenties, which were well brought out in Jhabvala's novel, tend to get lost here, even though she wrote the screenplay herself.
The other main weakness of "Heat and Dust" is that we never really understand why Olivia becomes entangled with the Nawab. This is no tale of an Anna Karenina or an Emma Bovary, married to a dull older man who neglects her and whom she does not love. Olivia's husband Douglas is young, good-looking and attentive; at the start of the film, indeed, she seems desperately in love with him, preferring to stay with him during the summer heat rather than follow the other memsahibs to the cool of the hill station where they spend the summer away from their husbands. Shashi Kapoor's oily Nawab, by contrast, is an obvious scoundrel, despite the dubious glamour conferred by his royal status. (The British suspect him of being in league with a gang of bandits, allowing them to operate with impunity in exchange for a share of their booty).
With this reservation, however, the story of Olivia is generally well done. The lovely Greta Scacchi, in her first major role, makes an appealing tragic heroine. (She was to play another adulterous colonial wife a few years later in "White Mischief"). The other parts are generally well played, and there is an amusing cameo from Nickolas Grace as Harry, the Nawab's effeminate but sinister British adviser. The look of this part of the film is attractive, made in Merchant Ivory's normal "heritage cinema" style. Interestingly enough for a film made by an Indian-born producer and an American-born director, its politics seem less concerned with post-colonial guilt than do those of many British productions about the Empire. Although some of the British are obviously racist, such as Patrick Godfrey's doctor, the administrators we see often seem more concerned for the welfare of the Indian population than do their own rulers such as the Nawab.
The modern story, however, seems like an intrusion into the much more interesting historical one. Julie Christie is normally a gifted actress, but she seems wasted here. There is some fitful humour provided by the character of Chid, the American convert to Hindu mysticism who seems more interested in cheap sex than he does in enlightenment. Otherwise this part of the film can arouse little interest. 6/10
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