Top satirical website The Onion recently broke a story on Wes Anderson: “Fans who attended a sneak preview of The Darjeeling Limited,” it deadpanned, “were shocked to learn the film features a dry comedic tone, highly stylised production design and a plot centring around unresolved family issues.”
The mock news piece went on to feign similar surprise at the familiar cast, the melancholy subtexts and the Brit-bands on the soundtrack. (“What will he think of next?”) All good-spirited fun, of course, but the spoof is starting to stick. Anderson, one of America’s most intelligent, on-the-ball filmmakers, is increasingly talked about in terms of style, not substance. The fashions and music picks receive as much attention as the movies themselves. It’s as though he crams the background with so many fascinating trinkets, people forget to focus on what’s right in front of them. That’s a shame, because every film to date – as flawed and forgivable as a loved one – grows with repeated viewing. The Darjeeling Limited will do the same. Powerful and meditative, it’s Anderson’s most mature work to date; an exploration of love, death and family that lingers long after its (modest) running time’s up.
Most critics’ screenings started with 13-minute short Hotel Chevalier, a gorgeous, funny mood-piece that gives the film’s closing scenes a little extra seasoning. It’s worth tracking down on the net before you hit the cinema – and yes, it does feature a nearly nude Natalie Portman… The movie proper begins with a cameo from Bill Murray, too encumbered with cases to catch the train he’s running for, a father figure who’ll be sitting out this journey. Aboard said choo-choo are Francis, Peter and Jack Whitman (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman, respectively): brothers who haven’t exchanged a word since their dad’s funeral a year ago. The three are together at the behest of Francis who, swathed in bandages after a recent motorbike mishap, is eager to embark on a “spiritual quest”, locomoting across India. “I want us to be brothers like we used to be,” he pleads to his sceptical sibs, who don’t take too kindly to his control-freak insistence on providing laminated daily itineraries for their long days’ journey into light.
But as the train chugs on, we slowly discover that each of the bros is lugging their own emotional baggage: a point visually riffed on by constant reference to their elaborate personalised suitcases. (End credits reveal that all “suitcase wildlife drawings” were etched by Anderson’s own brother, Eric.) Peter’s wife back home is pregnant and he can’t cope with the responsibility; Jack writes ‘short stories’ that are actually verbatim accounts of past follies and family episodes. Meanwhile, Francis’ ‘accident’ may have darker roots… (And yes, after recent real-life events, seeing Wilson bruised and bandaged does disconcert). Various subcontinental capers follow, the radiant backdrop almost proving a character in its own right. Before long, though, Francis spills the real reason for the trip: to reacquaint the brothers with the mother who left them to become a nun. Regular Anderson viewers won’t be surprised to learn that Ma Whitman is played by Anjelica Huston – nor that she excels in a brief albeit testing role. To reveal any more would be to spoil an excursion that meanders richly before reaching a final third of high drama, tragedy and resolution… of a sort.
True, the visual tics and stupendously effective soundtrack (a mix of licks from the films of Indian master Satyajit Ray and tracks from The Kinks’ unsung 1970 platter Lola Versus Powerman And The Moneygoround, Part One) will conjure a sense of déjà vu for some audiences. Yet Anderson’s consistent style and sensibility are signs of a director not in a rut but in control. Every carefully composed shot bears the hallmark of genuine craftsmanship. Better still, the fastidiousness doesn’t jar against the movie’s tender message: nothing can stop life unfolding how it will; you just have to roll with it. Bold, original and ambitious, this is personal filmmaking of a rare vintage. The Darjeeling Limited looks, sounds, feels like no other Hollywood film you’ll see this year. Equally, though, it’s Anderson’s most sincere and emotionally revealing work yet. There’s never been a better time to get on board with his unique brand of cinema.