The Darjeeling Limited (2007) is Wes Anderson’s fourth feature-length film, premiering three years after The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, starring Bill Murray.
The film somewhat follows three brothers, who have been brought together by the eldest of the trio in a quest to “find” themselves spiritually in India after he is almost killed in a motorcycle crash, although this is not immediately obvious. Much of it is set on a train, a backdrop which is used to again with great success in his later film The Grand Budapest Hotel.
At first, the plot of the film starts cryptically and I was left feeling sceptical. However, as the plot develops it becomes somewhat clearer. The oldest brother, Francis (Owen Wilson), brings them together, perhaps in some dramatic change of heart after his near-death experience. The other brothers are Peter (Adrien Brody), who is stuck in a marriage with a woman who he doesn’t love and who has just announced she’s pregnant; and Jack (Jason Schwartzman), who spends a lot of the film dialling his ex-girlfriend’s voicemail to listen to her messages (we meet his ex-girlfriend, played by Natalie Portman, in the preceding short film <em>The Hotel Chevalier). </em>Despite the film starting with the premise that the brothers are in India to “find” themselves, whenever it seems like the film is going to slip into pseudo-profundity as some indie films seem to, there are unexpected moments of humour. The film only took two and half days to shoot, which explains why it feels so spontaneous and fresh. However, despite the talented cast, the three brothers often present a lot of apathy, only contrasted by the sudden flashback to their necessary tragic backstory part-way through the film – necessary, because of course, every one dimensional character must have a unexpected tragic backstory in order to gain depth. Whether this technique is deployed successfully is debatable.
One thing that the film can be praised for is its avoidance of exoticism and fetishisation of Indian culture. The prominent Indian character is Rita (Amara Karan), the train stewardess. It seems deliberate on Anderson’s part that she does not conform to stereotypes, as Jack catches her smoking out of the train window with her hair down, and later hooks up with her. Furthermore, Anderson seems to try to make India merely the backdrop to the film, and never attempts to glamourise or demean it.
The soundtrack is a mix of Indian music (much of which is film music from the filmmaker Satyajit Ray) and tracks from other such as the Kinks and Peter Sarstedt. When combined with the deliciously bright colour schemes present in this film, The Darjeeling Limited becomes an immersive aesthetic experience.What it lacks in the substance of its plot, it does somewhat makes up for in visual and aural enjoyment.
It is a film that starts off with a premise (that they should “find” themselves) which it never really follows through, goes off on a series of sub-plots, and ends with little conclusion; but how much does it matter? It is an experience – it meanders, full of whimsy and part-formed thoughts, but nevertheless, I enjoyed it. It understandably divided critics upon release – some hated its lack of character and plot development, while others praised it despite that. Undoubtedly, Anderson has produced more iconic films since The Darjeeling Limited, such as The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel, so perhaps this one can be viewed fondly in hindsight as a necessary stepping stone on Anderson’s journey to becoming one of the most interesting film directors of our time.