The British Raj, Quantum Physics, and Some Super Cool Snake Rings: Roland Joffé’s The Lovers

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In the “making of” feature on the DVD of The Lovers, director Roland Joffé (The Killing Fields, Fat Man and Little Boy, City of Joy) describes his film as an exploration of the concept of time split across two eras, represented by “quantum physics” in the near future and “philosophy,” I think he calls it, 250 years earlier. Quantum physics is expressed through underwater archaeology, which in the year 2020 includes Star Wars-style briefing-room mapping holograms. I’m not sure what country these segments are supposed to be in, but it’s a very blue, clinical place, full of machines and hard surfaces, and loved ones are given the option of turning off life support for their critically ill by swiping a card. The past is hot, golden, and disordered, full of flames, treacherous authorities, and prophesy—and where better for such stylings than India under the British Raj? Without being terribly specific about religious practices, Joffé sets the discussions of time in a Hindu-ish context with a gentle-voiced priest who interprets visions, offers guidance, and ends the film by directly asking the camera, “But how, child, could it be otherwise?”

The two time periods are connected by Josh “Oh Yeah, Whatever Happened to That Guy?” Hartnett, playing risk-taking archaeologist Jay in the future and incredulous Captain James Stewart in the past. This Scottish identity demands a shaky accent  that accentuates his anti-English attitude, which in turn helps him bond passionately with Indian royal guard Tulaja (Bipasha Basu). Tulaja is a clever, bad-ass lady, but she does not know how to reconcile her love for James with the  prophesy of betrayal that the priest assigned to her visions in the beginning of the film.

Basu is the most prominent of a few Bollywood middleweights in The Lovers. Earlier in the 2000s, she was on the power lists in Hindi cinema, and more recently she has become a scream queen, but nothing I’ve seen her in would have led me to expect her to appear in an international production like this one. Abhay Deol, an occasional Bollywood co-star who is better known as an indie darling, is another curious inclusion—he’s probably the last 30 something male star I would have nominated to don the unkempt wig and molded-pec armor of days of yore. Atul Kulkarni, who has acted in many regional films across India, has a small role as a rebel who usurps more power than he can really manage. And then as the wise priest, there’s Indian-British actor Roshan Seth, who is only very rarely in straight-up Bollywood but appears almost everywhere else, with a career ranging from Gandhi  to Not Without My Daughter.

Unlike Ek Paheli Leela, The Lovers never really goes for a reincarnation story…or for any other explanation about the look-alike characters). Reincarnation wouldn’t be strictly necessary, but maybe Joffé just hasn’t seen enough mainstream Indian films to know how fun that trope can be. Instead the two histories come together when the archaeologists find one half of a set of intertwined snake rings, originally given to Tulaja by the queen she faithfully protects. But both the separation and eventual reunion of the rings are not given their full potential  narrative power: the separation is lost in the shuffle of a political rebellion, and the reunion seems utterly coincidental. A character from the past segment reappears in the future with no explanation at all, which I find frustrating: is this just another lookalike, and if so how do they know what they seem to know, or are they finally a nod to reincarnation, somehow managing to keep the same physical embodiment? Maybe coincidence is what Joffé wants us to think the nature of time is, but then why bother linking the centuries with a token artifact or having a religious authority ramble on about rippling waves and interwoven events? I certainly don’t need a movie like this to investigate big concepts like time and betrayal and sacrifice, but if it’s going to, then it needs to stop distracting viewers with political intrigue and castle sieges. Despite all the drama and passion  that are implied to be timeless and necessary, the film suggests no real meaning between the past and future.

Where The Lovers does succeed is in making wonderful use of Indian locations and aesthetics—Rajasthani puppets, Dravidian temple roofs, Keralan kathakali dancers—creating a beautiful mish-mash that helps with the fantasy feel but equally suggests that the Indian rulers are cosmopolitan and enmeshed in the subcontinent rather than politically and culturally under the British boot heel. As far as western cinematic portrayals of India go, this one is only mildly silly, and it mostly avoids using exotic Hindoostan as a spiritual awakening for privileged white folks. For starters, although he is a captain, James clearly doesn’t have much power or wealth; he’s in India because the army sent him there, not because he sought it for his own personal healing. It’s a job that he tries to make the most of, which does lead him to some wisdom and happiness, but there’s nothing mystical about his arc.

The Lovers is also just as interested in its Indian characters as the white ones and differentiates each person well, a trait it shares with the BBC miniseries, Indian Summers, where Seth also stars as a kindly and open-minded father figure. Tulaja’s professional skills  and her emotional life are central, as are the Indian-orchestrated political schemes and battles. The Indians are humans, not just servants or cannon fodder.  Whether anyone in this film has actual agency is a matter for debate, I suppose, given Joffé’s statement about the interconnectedness of events and the heavy bearing of fate on some decisions, but many characters discuss choices and values and take action accordingly.

I had expected The Lovers to be much more ridiculous than it turned out to be. The future portions, though brief, put a huge damper on the fun of the historical body of the film, which on its own would make a perfectly fine period romance.  Joffé would have had a better film if he’s just made it a pure historical fantasy-adventure, maybe assigning the “science” attitudes to one of the English ladies of the Raj who could be better integrated into the main story—or even just to James himself, giving the historical couple a lot more to talk about and opportunity to hear why Tulaja believes so strongly in her doomed romantic fate. According to some reports, Joffé had worked on this film since the 1990s, and it’s easy to imagine that he had too many ideas to ever cohere well. As it is, The Lovers  is not quite anything at all: the good ideas are rushed or left unfinished, and the bad ones are irrelevant and boring.

But at least it has shiny costumes.

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