Based on a wonderful novel by Rumer Godden, The River is a spellbinding work of visual poetry from master director Jean Renoir. A dreamy meditation on themes of childhood, love and death, the story concerns Harriet (Patricia Walters), a young English girl who enjoys an idyllic life on the banks of a great river with her family. Her kindly father (Esmond Knight) owns a jute mill which employs hundreds of local villagers, while mother (Nora Swinburne) tends their children: Elisabeth (Penelope Wilkinson), twins Muffie (Jane Harris) and Mouse (Jennifer Harris), little Victoria (Cecilia Wood) and mischief maker Bogey (Richard Foster), the only boy.
Impish housekeeper Nan (Suprova Mukerjee) tends this lively flock while teenage Valerie (Adrienne Corri) is a frequent visitor. Their neighbour Mr. John (Arthur Shields) dotes on his half-Indian daughter Melanie (Radha), who struggles with her heritage. One day Mr. John receives an unexpected houseguest, his cousin Captain John (Arthur E. Breen), recovering from a war injury that cost him one leg. The arrival of this handsome stranger stirs passions in Harriet, Valerie and Melanie, signalling the death of childhood and the dawn of their womanhood.
Although La Grande Illusion (1937) and La Regle de Jeu (1939) regularly top critics lists, The River is Renoir’s most watchable film and may even be his greatest. It is at once both an atypical venture for Renoir, in its visually driven narrative, and typifies his great strengths as a filmmaker: that keen observation, empathy and understanding of human nature. It was Renoir’s understanding that Indian culture is centred around the visual arts (dance, painting, calligraphy) that inspired his beautiful use of colour. This was the first colour film to be shot in India, framed with a painterly eye by Renoir and his nephew, the cinematographer Claude Renoir, with production design by Eugene Lourié of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1956) fame.
The duality of naturalism and dreamlike imagery underlines Renoir’s stated intention to both demystify India and illustrate the way art, religion and fable are inextricably woven into its fabric. Documentary footage mingles with drama, professional actors work alongside amateurs. Occasionally awkward performances from actors like the dancer Radha actually strengthen the truthfulness of the movie. In her only film credit Patricia Walters is strikingly naturalistic, while Arthur Breen - who really lost his leg in the war - is also affecting. When he slips and falls whilst playing with the girls, it’s a genuinely upsetting moment and his reactions of rage, humiliation and fear are entirely believable.
Renoir mirrors the awkwardness of adolescent feelings with the restlessness felt by Melanie and Captain John as each struggles to find their place in the world. The film touches on racial tensions, post-war trauma and post-colonial angst, but at its centre lies the river. It embodies the endless flowing of life, the idea that everything passes, all is transitory. Following her family tragedy, Harriet journeys along the river that finally revives both her and Captain John’s zest for life, before the film closes with a newborn baby’s cries. Author Rumer Godden was reluctant to hand over the film rights, having strangely detested another adaptation of her work - the excellent Black Narcissus (1947), yet wisely acquiesced and co-wrote the lyrical screenplay with Jean Renoir. The film bubbles with Renoir’s puckish humour, mostly centred around Harriet’s loving and lovable family - as when little Victoria asks why Captain John didn’t stay in battle until his other leg was blown off.