The Darjeeling Limited

The Darjeeling Limited

****

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Gawkily idiosyncratic and well nigh perfect, Wes Anderson's breakout second feature Rushmore (1999) was, for those who saw it, one of the most memorable films of the Nineties, starring the then unknown Jason Schwartzman as a schoolboy whose ambitions and genius can barely be contained. Anderson, like his protagonist, seemed a precocious talent, and it was perhaps unsurprising that his next two features, The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and The Life Aquatic (2004), should both explore characters who have bloomed too early and then burnt out - characters who, like their director, have fallen prey to the impossible, high-pressure responsibility of having to live up to their own past standards. Perhaps neither film quite matched the promise of Rushmore, but that both were still highly impressive oddities in their own right is testimony to Anderson's original vision as a filmmaker.

Anderson's latest, The Darjeeling Limited, is a road (or more precisely, track) movie following the journey of the three Whitman brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman), estranged since the death a year ago of their father, as they attempt to find reconciliation, and perhaps even enlightenment, on a railway trip through India's holiest sites. Like his entire post-Rushmore oeuvre, it deals with family dysfunction and people who have lost their way - and like all his films, it is a sprawling ensemble piece full of primary colours, quirky characters, melancholic whimsy, death's dark shadow, and a strong sense of theatricality. In other words, this is a product instantly recognisable as brand Anderson - but while each of his films is much like the others, none is at all like anything made by anybody else. If you have not yet managed to catch one of Anderson's films, The Darjeeling Limited is as good a place as any to start - and will almost certainly leave you wanting to check out the rest.

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In fact, The Darjeeling Limited comes with a bonus treat: a 13-minute short called Hotel Chevalier which focuses on one of the film's protagonists, and which has rightly been reinstated as a prologue piece to the main feature. Hotel Chevalier introduces Schwartzman's character Jack, so incapable of moving on from his ex-girlfriend (a gamine, yet bruised, Natalie Portman) that he has taken up semi-permanent residence in the limbic space of a luxury Parisian hotel room. It is witty and painful in equal measure, and if Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill appropriated yellow as the colour of implacable female vengeance, then Hotel Chevalier reclaims it as the hue of wistfully absurd infatuation. It is a fitting introduction to the emotionally arrested personae of The Darjeeling Limited - as well as to their eccentrically styled baggage (both literal and metaphorical).

If all Anderson's recent films have been haunted by the burgeoning brilliance of Rushmore, what haunts The Darjeeling Limited even more is the subsequent suicide attempt by one of its stars, Owen Wilson, and the way in which this unforeseeable event brings retroactive weight to his character Francis, who bears scars both physical and psychological. Francis' writer brother Jack (Schwartzman) keeps insisting that his short stories and novels are fiction, even though they are in fact barely disguised accounts of his own and his family's experiences - and now the same seems true of Anderson's film, a fiction dramatising intimate, self-destructive feelings that have proven all too real.

On their jaunt through India, the three brothers are spiritual tourists, in search of something spiritually transcendent to lift them out of their current stasis - and they are also (although at first only Francis knows this) on a quest to bring their wayward mother Patricia (Anjelica Huston), currently working as a missionary nun in the Himalayas, back into the fold. All of which, along with the traintrack stretching out ahead, lends their journey an apparently predictable trajectory - and yet, despite following a set of two straight lines, the boys end up making a strangely circular journey where problems are merely shunted along and nothing is properly resolved.

The viewer who has been reared on more conventional narratives with their typically redemptive arcs may well leave frustrated and disappointed at the directionless meandering of it all; but, as with so many of Anderson's films, if you allow its ideas to loop about in your head, or even see it more than once, you will discover a piece whose apparently desultory structure conceals all manner of hidden depths.

The Darjeeling Limited is chaotic, funny, beautifully shot and performed with a childlike deadpan. Hurtling towards an ending that is far less pat than expected, the film makes for an excellent training in life (and death) – and is too mobile and busy to be forced into a single compartment.

Reviewed on: 19 Oct 2007
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Three brothers take a 'spiritual journey' across India by train.
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Amber Wilkinson ***1/2

Director: Wes Anderson

Writer: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman

Starring: Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Amara Karan, Wallace Wolodarsky, Waris Ahluwalia, Irfan Khan, Barbet Schroeder, Bill Murray, Anjelica Huston, Camilla Rutherford, Natalie Portman

Year: 2007

Runtime: 91 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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