A Quest Fraternal

Wes Anderson Takes Us On Another Ride

On The Town | Valerie Crawford-Pfannhauser | February 2008

The Darjeeling Limited is the latest off beat, eccentric and observant human comedy from director/writer Wes Anderson. Set in India, it features all the well-honed trademarks of the Anderson oeuvre including casting Owen Wilson, Bill Murray and other regulars, in-frame symmetry, elegant compositions, bright colour schemes, slow motion effects and stylised dialogue.

This is the story of a dysfunctional family, and it is also a story about India, a stunning and also dysfunctional country, and at the same time provides the landscape for healing. Anderson (Rushmore/The Royal Tenebaums/The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) here presents us with a gorgeous visual feast that captures some of the wonderful vibrancy of the India, its people and its music. He acknowledges the inspiration of the legendary Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray and has admitted that he went to India to make this film partly as a tribute to Ray.

The Darjeeling Limited is the name of the train that three estranged American brothers take across India in an attempt to improve their relationships and to find some meaning to their  existence. The reunion is convened by the oldest brother, rich business-man Francis Whitman (Owen Wilson), who having nearly died in a motorbike accident, now embraces life and really wants to get to know his younger brothers Peter (Adrien Brody) and Little Jack (Jason Schwartzman). The brothers haven’t spoken since they last met at their father’s funeral a year ago.

Before the film really gets going, we see a 13-minute short called  Hotel Chevalier in which Jack and his ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman) meet in his room at this smart Parisian hotel. This prologue neatly sets the tone of the film to follow – exposing the vulnerabilities and idiosyncrasies of its characters and the poignancy of so much remaining unsaid.

A very graceful and comic scene marks the proper start of the film in which American business-man Bill Murray races to catch the train but misses it and is overtaken on the platform by the younger more agile Peter Whitman.

The brothers gather in their first-class carriage and Francis tells them of his hopes and dreams for this to be a ‘spiritual journey’ and a ‘life changing experience’ – ‘I want us to become brothers again - to become enlightened.’ However because Francis needs to take charge, his version of ‘enlightenment’ is that it is something that can be scheduled into daily itinerary.

To help him in his quest Francis brings an assistant along – the balding, middle-aged Brendan, who is installed in a second class carriage and is responsible for providing them all with a laminated copy of a daily schedule that he quietly slips under the door.  Anderson works humour in on many levels in this film and it is hilarious when the brothers eventually get fed up with the itineraries and try and with their teeth try to rip them out of the laminated covers.

Peter and Jack are at first a little concerned to see Francis in his physically injured state – awkward bandages around his head, a tooth missing, walking with a stick and armed with a supply of obscure Indian pain relievers and medicines – however it does not take long before they all regress into familiar family patterns and start reliving old battles. The jostling of egos is highly amusing, in part because of the great casting and in part because they of the pointed truth of human relationships.

Before long, Peter and Jack have allowed Francis to takes charge of the passports, assign sleeping arrangements and order from the menu for them. They resign themselves to their designated role in the family and while away time in the carriage smoking countless cigarettes and sipping the Indian medicines.  Further underlying tensions and old rivalries come to the surface when Peter flaunts several of their father’s possessions, including sunglasses and a razor, suggestive that he was the favourite child and which particularly aggravates Francis. Peter is a troubled married man worrying about divorcing his pregnant wife. Little Jack, a writer of short stories, is obsessed with his ex-girlfriend and at every opportunity finds a telephone and eavesdrops on her answering machine, at the same time as making moves on Rita – the hostess for their carriage.

It is clear from the offset that the brothers have not entirely grown up, and that they all need some emotional healing, literally and metaphorically carrying ‘baggage’. Literally this comes in the colourful and exclusive numbered luggage set from Louis Vuitton, an effective visual, symbolic and comic device in the narrative contrasting the privileged world of the Whitman’s with the less materialistic and spiritually richer world of India. By the end of the film, the brothers are running to catch another train and the entourage of porters can’t keep up so the luggage is finally dispensed with.

With loosely sketched characterisation and a meandering story line, Anderson creates intrigue and at the same time, allows himself considerable artistic freedom. We are given scant detail  – we don’t really know where their wealth comes from, for example. Rather we assimilate what we need to know through their interaction, dialogue and behaviour. A lot is packed into this film, a wonderful melange of observations and incidences, and humor that will have you smiling for days.

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