Argumentative married couple Greg Bruce and Zanna Gillespie review Romantic Road.
Film’s age (years): 3
Film’s watchability: 2.5
Film’s cultural self-awareness: 1
There’s no couple less likely to undertake the road trip around which this movie is set than Greg and me. I’m an infuriating passenger, so would need to do all the driving but would almost certainly suffer a medical event from the stress of India’s chaotic roads. Greg is a horrendous navigator and would confidently direct us halfway across China before realising that his GPS wasn’t working and we were traversing the wrong nation. The fact that Jan and Rupert Grey completed this six-month expedition in a 1936 Rolls-Royce together is testament to her grit and unnatural devotion to her madcap husband’s pursuits. Maybe it’s internalised patriarchal conditioning or maybe it’s true love.
The premise of Romantic Road – wealthy British couple traverse India in the very symbol of colonialism, a Rolls – is problematic. The film doesn’t ignore this, Rupert admits it’s provocative and Indian actor Ankur Vikal does an excellent job of pointing out some of the societal issues on display but it doesn’t save the film from its white gaze.
Look, we’re harsh critics. We’ve seen a lot of films this year that we’ve rubbished but, in our defence, 2020 belongs in the bin and with many productions currently halted, 2021 is heading that way too. This film began the festival circuit in 2017. That’s what we’re doing now: plucking films that didn’t make it to a wide release pre-Covid and giving them their 15 minutes.,
At the film’s conclusion, I said “I thought it was sweet.” Then we proceeded to pick it to pieces, as we are wont to do. For me, it felt a bit small, like a television documentary. There’s some real danger on their journey – insurgents on the northern border, precarious roads and a perilous dismount from a river boat – but the stakes don’t feel high: it feels more like a pleasant travel diary.
Many people will love eccentric copyright lawyer Rupert and his earnest passion for India – most likely retired couples with wanderlust. Unfortunately, not these two curmudgeons.
It’s hard to like Rupert, the central figure of this documentary. Not that there’s anything wrong with him as a person but his general vibe of entitlement is just so at odds with the times. Even if you love him, the idea of following an eccentric, old, posh, white Englishman on his intrepid road trip with his wife in their vintage Rolls-Royce through the often-horrifying poverty of India just tastes a bit off.
The movie features a large number of interviews with Rupert’s friends and family, and a dearth of interactions with the people they meet on their journey. One of the few is when Rupe gets a private meeting with the Finance Minister of Bangladesh because he’s having trouble getting his car into the country. If you’re a citizen of that country and you’re struggling with your finances, that must be a hard scene to watch. It’s the very definition of privilege gone wild.
With its heavy-handed title and equally heavy-handed concluding interviews, the film tries to wrap itself up in a story it doesn’t really tell, about the love between Rupert and his wife Jan and about how love allows us to be all we can be, and isn’t love a triumph? I got the sense Jan wished Rupert would spend more time chilling out in their fantastically enormous garden and less time risking everyone’s lives for the sort of jolly japes more befitting a more ignorant time.
Here’s a real love story: a wife and husband watch a new movie every week, knowing that afterwards they’re going to have to engage in a robust discussion, probably involving under-resourced and overconfident opinions and hurt feelings and that, following the publication of these discussions, they will be subject to a range of inquiries and unsolicited feedback from parents-in-law and others regarding the state of their marriage and the nature of their communications and questions about whether all this really needs to take place in the pages of our leading national newspaper.