A documentary about a rich British couple driving through India could easily have been squeamish, but is saved by sheer charm

Romantic Road - the whimsy will disarm you. Picture: Supplied
Romantic Road - the whimsy will disarm you. Picture: Supplied

Romantic Road (PG)

3 stars

As the lockdown begins anew for some, this Quixotic tale of a confident British couple packing their charming old Rolls Royce for a trip through the Indian sub-continent is going to be the kind of wistful escapism that will warm the soul and allow some vicarious wanderlust.

The more cynical might see the pair and their adventure as Colonial-era throwbacks thumbing their nose at the history and inequity all around them, and that's how I started in on this documentary, eventually being disarmed by the whimsy of it all.

British copyright lawyer Rupert Grey decides his later life needs some meaning and adventure and so packs up his heirloom 1936 Rolls Royce for a survey of the Indian border following the trail of his father's 1940s military career and his own misspent youth on the hippie trail.

His wife Jan doesn't necessarily care about the car or the destination but she loves her husband and doesn't want to be apart from him for six months, and so she tags along as companion and navigator.

From Mumbai to Dhakar in this open-top Rolls, which Grey himself calls an "antique symbol of colonialism", the pair encounter obstacles, technical, political, but also actual obstacles such as enormous road-consuming pot-holes, rivers and geopolitical borders.

Along the route, the car itself draws crowds, mainly blokes, fascinated to see it running, marvelling at the beauty of it.

When Grey performs a piece of old-fashioned mechanical wizardry to get it started in a crowded Indian street, one of the crowd of onlookers asks "Do all English cars start like that?"

"Only the best ones," Grey laughs back.

The Greys are family friends of the director Oliver McGarvey, a British expat living in Canada, and when he heard about their plans for this adventure he begged to be allowed to come along and record it. They reluctantly agreed to two weeks, but McGarvey's camera is there for the entire six months.

McGarvey also draws from quite a healthy family video archive to help narrate, particularly the tales of Grey's grown-up children. There is more warmth than usual in the talking-heads interviews with family, friends and supporters. Usually rather dry affairs, I enjoyed hearing a few off-camera laughs as subjects shared their anecdotes.

Following as close as the political situation will allow them to the northern Indian border, the couple's plan is to drive to Chobi Mela, a photography festival in Dhakar, Bangladesh, and one of the film's better scenes is a series of showdowns between the stubborn Rupert and a series of mid-level Bangladeshi bureaucrats as he tries to get his car 'imported' across the Indian border.

I did have a problem with the complete lack of stakes of any kind, even low ones, in this adventure. There aren't many obstacles that a wealthy upper-class couple couldn't buy their way out of or leverage their contacts to solve, like the aforementioned car import stoush above.

Along the route, the Rolls Royce itself draws crowds, mainly blokes, fascinated to see it running, marvelling at the beauty of it.

As characters, their obvious charm and their constant self-referential observations about the irony of not wanting to appear to Colonial, or post-Colonial, is what saves them and the film from being a great gush of entitled buffoonery.

There's a fantastic scene where, having become minor celebrities as the Indian media begin following the pair on their journey, Rupert is approached to play a British bureaucrat at the centre of the 1943 troubles in a local movie (as much for his car as for his British appearance).

The subtle B-plot for this film is I think the one you take away with you, and that's the marriage of our lead characters. For them, the real adventure is having six immersive months together with someone you've been married to for 35 years and rediscovering each other.

In the film's closing moments, Rupert confesses that yes, he is lucky - not because of the successful law career or the posh car and the travel, but because he and his wife have each other.

This film enjoyed strong audience response at the British Film Festival over the summer and had the very beginnings of a cinema release just as COVID was closing cinema doors, so bravo to the distributors for giving the film another shot.

Some will just go because Sharon Stone's name is on the poster - she produced it. Retirees and frustrated adventurers will love it.

This story A cynical concept saved by whimsy first appeared on The Canberra Times.