The Mistress of Spices Paul Mayeda Berges

Aishwarya Rai is brilliant at staring into space. As the star of Mistress of Spices, she’s not asked to do much else; her character is a magical spice merchant who’s bound by Indian tradition to help others at the expense of herself, hence the longing, wishful gazes.

Of course, she’s tempted away from her post, which she’s not supposed to leave, lest the spices turn on their buyers, by the rugged masculine charms of Doug (Dylan McDermott). This naturally, means chaos for her customers as well as for her. So Rai is put through her paces in the most passive role possible for a woman (which is saying plenty). She stands, she stares, she registers more in her eyebrow than most actors do with their whole bodies while the movie lets her down completely.

The script is a mishmash of pseudo-multiculturalism (flashbacks to Kashmiri unrest will have you gagging), purple-prose dialogue and the most perfunctory characterisations possible for a magic-realist fantasy. Everything is sanitised for your protection, from the gangsta leanings of a frightened young Sikh to the culture shock between first- and third-generation immigrants; issues are at most name-checked but never actually dealt with. All this I could handle if the movie was reasonably entertaining, but it’s ludicrous, something that would embarrass the sad little women who read Harlequins un-ironically, and all we’re left with is Rai and her titanic movie-star talent.

Out of nothing she fashions a performance that at once fits the movie and rises above it, showing the kind of sweeping emotionalism that might have been possible with a little craft and a bit of elbow grease. She deserves better, and so do we. (Maple)