Wilson, Brody and Schwartzman are three brothers who embark on a journey through India a year after their father’s death: they haven’t seen each other since his funeral and Wilson, the older of the three and a dominating presence, hopes that a long train journey will bring them closer together as friends and as brothers. It’s an Anderson movie from the off: the sound of The Kinks and the Stones mixed with the music of Satyajit Ray; the marriage of colour, costume and production-design to create a vivid but heightened impression of the real world; and, of course, the presence of Wilson and Bill Murray – even if Murray appears cryptically for only a few minutes as ‘The Businessman’ (most probably a reflection of the brothers’ father). As ever with Anderson's films, the comic and the melancholic work together, and while ‘Darjeeling’ is lighter on its feet than ‘The Life Aquatic’ because of its more speedy pace and the relative simplicity of its camerawork, we still encounter the familiar sight of privileged but troubled young men struggling to find a place for themselves in the shadow of their family. Does it feel like Anderson is treading water? Yes, sadly, it often does– but an optimist could rightly claim that an Anderson-shaped pool is ten times better than most in Hollywood.
There’s much in ‘Darjeeling’ that’s familiar from many other road movies: stand-offs, arguments, fights, apologies, shared experiences, lessons learnt and relationships strengthened. We discover more about each of the brothers as we go along, but there’s less of the intricate background and layering of Anderson’s other films, particularly ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’, which delighted in the complexity of its biographies. Instead, much is left to the moment and the landscape: Anderson sucks in the sights, colours and oddities of India, from the manner in which tickets are checked on the train to visits to a shoe-shiner and a holy temple. There’s a moving episode involving the funeral of a child who the brothers encounter, which allows for one of Anderson’s trademark slow dolly-shots cut to the sound of The Kinks.
As ever, Anderson’s humour is rarely laugh-out-loud, which occasionally feels awkward here: the set-up, with three depressed Americans travelling on a train in a foreign country, at least superficially calls for comedy. Instead, the effect of the film is subtle as it invites us to share in the characters’ slow transformation, culminating in a late scene in a monastery, where the boys encounter their mother, played by Anjelica Houston. Structurally, the film isn’t entirely sound, and the emotional depth of both ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ and ‘Rushmore’ is never achieved. But ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ has much charm, is a sensitive piece, is sometimes funny and further shows Anderson to be a storyteller with a touch for the visually and aurally hip that you imagine he couldn’t shake if he tried.
The film is preceded by a superb, 12-minute short film by Anderson, ‘Hotel Chevalier’, which sketches some of the background to Schwartzman’s character, who we find in a grand Paris hotel room, alone and sombre and listening to Peter Sarstedt’s ‘Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?’ and later contemplating sex with his semi-estranged girlfriend, played by Natalie Portman. This wistful film is sexy and romantic – an Anderson first – and is a beguiling short story. Arguably, though, it’s better than the feature that follows and fosters expectations of greatness that are never fulfilled by the main feature.