Harriet (Patricia Walters) is a pensive, awkward, and fanciful adolescent growing up in Bengal near the banks of the river. The eldest child of a jute factory manager (Esmond Knight), she spends most of her days writing poetry in her diary and observing life pass by over the garden walls with her attractive and self-confident friend, Valerie (Adrienne Corri), and her levelheaded, yet superstitious governess, Nan (Suprova Mukerjee). One day, the girls witness the arrival of an intriguing young man at the home of their neighbor, Mr. John (Arthur Shields), and decide to send a formal invitation to celebrate the Hindu festival of lights as an excuse to meet him. Mr. John is a humble, affable widower whose daughter Melanie (Radha) has recently graduated from a Western school. Mr. John, an Anglo-Indian, was married to a Hindu woman, and consequently, Melanie was born without caste. Now an adult, Melanie struggles to reconcile her identity as she finds herself on the periphery of both cultures, but belonging to neither. The girls are eventually introduced to Mr. John’s American cousin, Captain John (Thomas E. Breen), a disabled war veteran who has run away to India, unable to adjust to civilian life back home. Captain John’s attentiveness, charm, and soft-spoken vulnerability captivate the young women, and soon, he becomes the unwitting object of their affection, as they vie for his undivided attention and love.
Using repeated sensoral imagery of cadence, Jean Renoir presents a fascinating, exotic, and meditative glimpse into the rhythm of life in postwar India in The River. Retrospectively presented through the measured narrated tone of an older Harriet (June Hillman), the film becomes a transitory account of the eternal human cycle: the daily ritual of the native fishermen and jute factory workers as they perform their tasks; the seasonal festivals culminating with the return of an earth-formed statue of Kali back to the river; Melanie’s continuation of her mother’s cultural heritage; the pregnancy of Harriet’s mother (Nora Swinburne) that coincides with Harriet’s emotional realization of first love. Similar to the quaint dirt road in Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy, the river provides a source of constancy and reassurance throughout the profound changes transpiring in Harriet’s young life. Inevitably, like the reflective, mature Harriet, the river becomes an omniscient chronicler of the enrapturing beauty and universal celebration of the process of life.
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