Tale of an idealistic local caught in the crossfire of an illicit affair.

The emotionally charged mysteries of his breakthrough feature, “The Terrorist,” have given way to laborious narrative convention in Indian helmer Santosh Sivan’s latest, English-lingo period meller “Before the Rains.” Tale of an idealistic local caught in the crossfire of an illicit affair is too pat and pretty to connect with upscale auds, suggesting spotty theatrical play ahead of cable and ancillary buys.

In 1937 Kerala, as the spirit of nationalism gains steam, hard-charging British spice baron Henry Moores (Linus Roache) secures a bank loan to build an ambitious road to expand his business. He dreams of sharing the eventual largesse with his right-hand man, T.K. Neelan (Rahul Bose), who counts among his childhood pals Moores’ housemaid, Sajani (Nandita Das).

It soon becomes apparent to T.K. that Moores and Sajani are lovers, a fact confirmed when two village boys spot the pair in flagrante on a riverbank near town. When Moores’ wife (Jennifer Ehle) shows up and Sajani’s suspicious husband Rajat (Lal Paul) beats his wife out of jealousy, the resulting emotions lead to humiliation and tragedy, as T.K. is compelled through guilt and obligation to aid Moores in a ghastly cover-up.

Largely predictable pic is tastefully designed, superbly photographed, competently acted and almost completely lacking in passion or tension. The lovers’ tryst is shot in chaste close-up, and Moores is such a craven adulterer, it’s difficult for auds to sympathize, much less root for his success.

Led by the ace lensing of Sivan himself, the tech package is so clean and crisp, it actually detracts from supposedly raw emotions of the affair. Pic is based on a 50-minute sequence within Dany Verete’s Israeli film “The Desert Trilogy: Yellow Asphalt,” called “Red Roofs.”

Before the Rains

Production

An Adirondack Pictures presentation of an Echo Lake Entertainment production, in association with Excalibur Pictures, Santosh Sivan Prods. (International sales: Maximum Films Intl., Toronto.) Produced by Doug Mankoff, Andrew Spaulding, Paul Hardart, Tom Hardart, Mark Burton. Executive producers, Ashok Rao, Jane Villiers, Howard Frumes. Co-producers, Mubina Rattonsey, Jessica Stamen, Amotz Zakai, Pauline Piechota. Directed by Santosh Sivan. Screenplay, Cathy Rabin.

Crew

Camera (color), Sivan; editors, Steven Cohen, A. Sreekar Prasad; music, Mark Kilian; production designer, Sunil Babu; costume designer, S.B. Satheesan; sound (Dolby Digital), Paul Schwartz. Reviewed at Toronto Intl. Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 10, 2007. Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Linus Roache, Rahul Bose, Nandita Das, Jennifer Ehle, John Standing, Leopold Benedict, Indrajith Sukumaran, Lal Paul. (English, Malayalam dialogue)
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