The arrival of a new Wes Anderson film is pretty much always a cause for celebration in the UNCUT office. He’s a master of dry, melancholic comedies and a meticulous visual stylist, with a fine ear for music and who’s surrounded himself with a peerless roster of actors — Bill Murray, Anjelica Huston, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Gene Hackman among them — who faultlessly bring his peculiar, poignant stories to life.
It’s perhaps emblematic of Anderson’s universe that, in the production notes handed out at last night’s press screening for The Darjeeling Limited, Anjelica Huston describes her character in the film as “something of an action hero nun.” I am also warned, half-seriously, by the film’s press officer to prepare for the continuous use of Peter Sarstedt‘s ballad “Where Did You Go To (My Lovely)” over the soundtrack. Oh, and Bill Murray crops up for the opening five minutes in a mute cameo.
Adding an extra level of quirk to the proceedings, The Darjeeling Limited is preceeded by a 10 minute short, Hotel Chevalier, a two-hander between Schwartman and Natalie Portman set in a hotel suite in Paris, one-liners zinging like a Howard Hawks’ comedy. It’s the first glimpse we get of Schwartzman (who also co-wrote Darjeeling with Anderson and Roman Coppola), as Jack Whitman, the youngest of three brothers, whose fumbled attempts to reconnect with one another forms the narrative arc of Darjeeling.
Anderson’s films — Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou — occupy themselves with the strength/fragility of relationships, usually within the family unit. I was surprised at how soft (in a good way) Darjeeling is, how sweet the estranged brothers’ struggle to bond is. Alongside Schwartman, there’s Adrien Brody making his debut for Anderson as middle brother Peter, with the director’s long-term collaborator, Owen Wilson, rounding out the family as eldest brother Francis.
We know that all three boys are grieving their father’s death, and there are still issues with their mother (Huston) who never attended his funeral and is now the “action hero nun” in a monastery in the Himalayas. Compounding this, Jack is vainly trying to extricate himself from a failing relationship; Peter is unsure how to react to imminent fatherhood; Frances is physically damaged, recovering from a motorbike accident, his face partly obscured by bandages for the duration of the film.
At Frances’ request, the three meet on board The Darjeeling Limited, a train travelling across the desert of Rajasthan. There, Frances plans, they’ll embark on a more spiritual journey of their own, which will culminate with meeting their mother.
To shoot on the train, Anderson and his crew borrowed 10 coaches from India’s Northwestern Railways, gutted them and build their own interiors, a striking palette of traditional Indian colours and Art Deco designs every bit as extraordinary as Steve Zissou’s ship, the Belafonte, in The Life Aquatic. There’s also wonderful images of bright saris and the parched yellow desert; a flashback to grey, windy New York looks like the colour’s been leached out of the world.
I’m struck by how much I fell for the relationship between the three brothers. If I have one recurring complaint against Anderson it’s that sometimes his films are too detached for me to fully engage with — it was certainly the case with The Life Aquatic. But there’s something charming about the way the three brothers’ squabble (Jack, at one point, having to mace Frances and Peter to stop them from kicking the crap out of him); they seem to regress into a childhood world of scraps and arguments that’s quite endearing.
But it’s not all funny. There’s a pretty grim tragedy down the line, and it’s the way the brothers’ deal with it that eventually brings them closer — tho it doesn’t necessarily provide the resolution they’re after.
It’s certainly not on a par with Tenenbaums, I’ve got to say, which still stands as Anderson’s masterpiece in my book. But it’s certainly a very charming way to spend 91 minutes.
The Darjeeling Limited plays at the London Film Festival on November 1, and opens in the UK on November 23.