After an absence from the international stage of almost 20 years, Sri Lankan veteran Lester James Peries returns to the helm with “Mansion by the Lake,” a tranquil, undemonstrative slice of humanistic cinema that’s virtually timeless. “Inspired” (per credits) by Chekhov’s play “The Cherry Orchard,” and set in late ’80s rural Sri Lanka, story of cash-poor landed gentry fits seamlessly into Peries’ established oeuvre and will be welcomed by upscale, mostly older viewers with whom Peries’ gentle universe resonates. Given Peries’ long absence from filmmaking, and the pic’s quiet, classical virtues, strong critical support will be needed to propel “Mansion” even into niche theatrical situations, though some specialized tube sales are on the cards. Further fest travels beyond Cannes look assured.
The last significant pic by Peries, who turned 84 in April, was “End of an Era” (Yuganthaya, 1983), the final part of a trilogy of adaptations of works by novelist Martin Wickremasinghe. That title could equally fit “Mansion,” which is also set during a time of threatened social change and just prior to explosion of Tamil separatism that still dogs the island. Overt politicizing, however, has never been Peries’ bag and, like his spiritual namesake Chekhov, everything is filtered through human and family relationships rather than laid on with a trowel.
The family, and the inner tensions that bind and strain it, has been the focus of all of Peries’ best work, and aficionados of his 26 preceding pics will see in “Mansion” strong echoes of others, like “Changes in the Village” (Gamperaliya, 1963) and “The Time of Kali” (Kaliyugaya, 1982). Film is in no way a Sinhalese translation of the Chekhov play, and has its own dialogue and rhythm, though the main characters and themes are easily recognizable.
Movie opens in simple style with the return, after five years in London, of widowed Sujata Rajasuriya (Malini Fonseka) and her teenage daughter Aruni (Paboda Sandeepani), who are taken to the family manse by Sujata’s younger brother, Gunapala (Sanath Gunatileke). They’re met by Sujata’s elder, adopted daughter, Sita (Vasanthi Chaturani), who’s been looking after the house with the brother and servants. “Nothing has changed,” purrs Sujata appreciatively. “It’s just as we left it.”
In fact, everything is on the cusp of change. After years of non-payments, the bank is calling in the original loan that Sujata’s husband took out, and the only way out for the family is to find someone to redeem the mortgage. Lucas (Ravindra Randeniya), the son of the family’s former chief clerk and now a wealthy businessman in his own right, agrees to buy up the mortgage but wants to sell off the valuable land and demolish the mansion. Sujata refuses.
Sujata tries to raise some money from an eccentric elderly aunt, Catherine (Iranganie Serasinghe, having some fun with pic’s sole lighter role), but as the date of the bank calling in the loan looms the family faces the possibility of being socially humbled by the son of a former employee. Meanwhile, Aruni goes through her own wake-up call, re-meeting handsome Keerthi Bandara (Senaka Wijesinghe), tutor of her dead younger brother who’s now involved with political unrest and sought by the police.
The film, as a whole, is neither stiff nor clumsy, and its slight artificiality is redeemed by Peries’ customary gentleness and serene humanity. In line with its archetypical characters, the dialogue often has a slightly stagy quality — similar, in fact, to Chekhov’s own style.
Though clearly by an older director who is untroubled by the demands of the marketplace, pic has none of the sclerotic dryness that too often afflicts great directors past their prime — notably Satyajit Ray, whose career path was uncannily similar to Peries’ and started at the same time, the mid-’50s, with a low budget, naturalistic tale of rural life (“The Line of Destiny”).
Veteran Fonseka provides a portrait of calm, unpunctured self-belief as Sujata, the de facto Ranyevskaya role, with the only false note being struck in her lakeside memories of her dead son. Randeniya is especially good as the wealthy businessman, underplaying the character’s ruthlessness, and Chaturani is solid as the faithful elder daughter. Sandeepani is stronger on looks than technique as the pretty Aruni, and Gunatileke rather stiff as Sujata’s milquetoast brother.
Period detail, especially in Aruni’s wardrobe, is fine and editing is smooth, with a seamless, unshowy flow. K.A. Dharmasena’s lensing is bright and softly colored, while Pradeep Rathnayake’s delicate music sketches atmosphere and provides bridging. Pic was actually shot in 2001 — for less than $70,000 — but has still not been commercially released on home turf. Production values are all pro.