A title like Romantic Road creates obvious preconceptions, but director Oliver McGarvey’s film smashes through all of them.
It’s an elegant, 80-minute documentary full of surprises as it follows a British couple’s journey across India in a 1930s Rolls-Royce on their way to the Chobi Mela photography festival in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
At its centre is a fascinating character study centred around the relationship between Rupert and Janet Grey, both 66, who would do anything for each other.
Although there are obvious literal and metaphorical bumps along the road, the film has no true sense of conflict; it is driven entirely by character. You want to find out more about these people: why have they decided, in their 60s, to pack everything on top of their old car and go on a grand adventure?
From the start, you cannot help but fall in love with Rupert Grey. He’s jovial, eccentric and filled to the brim with the adventurous spirit of a man three-quarters his age. He reminds me deeply of my own English grandparents, yet he slides effortlessly from place to place.
The film initially introduces Rupert as the English lawyer with the large countryside home. His family and friends will be the first to tell you that he is a “toff”. His home is a library, cluttered with books, and he seems deeply at rest there, as if he belongs among the tomes and anthologies. But he also loves people and the world, and will do anything to see every bit of it.
McGarvey knows he has a wonderful personality to work with and lets that shine through in his documentary. There is also an array of other interesting characters – including Jan, the cast of interviewees and, of course, the ever-present car – and no shortage of endearing moments. Behind every nook and cranny is a story.
The grand journey itself – which takes six months and covers more than 8000 kilometres – highlights the beauty of India and its people, but also the awful poverty; the camera never shies from showing the contrasts.
There are doubts along the way, including the fear that driving a Rolls-Royce – a symbol of English high society – may be greeted with distaste by the locals and spark colonial memories. Yet no animosity is shown, with people instead drawn to the exotic “Rolls” and smiling at the concept of “packing everything up and just going”. They wish they could do the same.
Like the film, composer Kyle McCrea’s score is slow and joyous. There is a rustic aesthetic to this documentary, helped enormously by McGarvey’s decision to shoot using colour 35mm film. The unpretentious cinematography lends itself well to a handheld documentary style.
Romantic Road (whose executive producer is film star Sharon Stone) is the quintessential “it’s the journey, not the destination” film and is well worth the experience.
Romantic Road is showing now at Palace Nova Cinemas in Adelaide.