There are hyper-expressive actors who play to the gallery — so we can marvel at all that huffing and puffing, all that acting — and there are those who quietly vanish into the part, and then there’s Dhanush, who beautifully straddles the middle. In a wedding scene in Maryan (that’s the name of his character), he tries to catch the eye of Panimalar (Parvathi), whose advances he has constantly rebuffed. His approach here (perhaps consciously, perhaps by instinct) is that of a mime, filled with grimaces and hopeful glances — we’re left with little doubt about what he’s trying to do. (The man on the moon is left with little doubt about what he’s trying to do.)

Even elsewhere, when the director Bharatbala holds his face in tight close-ups, Dhanush relaxes, and he syncs us without fuss to what he’s feeling. Rarely has an actor projected as much love as Dhanush does here over a telephone call — even if there had been no dialogue, even if we didn’t see Panimalar at the other end, we’d have no trouble making out what this call, this scene, this moment is all about.

The happiest surprise of Maryan is that its heroine is every bit as good, another exquisite subject for close-ups. (And there are many of them.) Just watch her when she learns from Maryan’s best buddy Sakkarai (Appukutty) that Maryan may be in love with her after all. Or when she finds out, through a phone call, that he’s been kidnapped by mercenaries in Sudan, where he’s on a two-year assignment. Or even in the seemingly unplayable scene where, after Maryan makes his escape there, she senses his impending freedom.

This latter development is the stuff of melodramatic epics, and that’s what the director is after: a love story that transcends continents. Even when the villain, Theekkurisi (Vinayakan), shoves Panimalar into a room — she undergoes a shocking amount of brutality, even at the hands of Maryan — and attempts to rape her, she seems to be in a wild trance, thinking about her faraway lover, barely conscious of this proximal danger.

As he proved with his first feature, Hari Om, Bharatbala works very well in this intimate mode. There’s nothing new in this love story — she chases him; he resists; then his resolve crumbles — but Dhanush and Parvathi make us feel we’re eavesdropping on something special, where the most mundane of happenings (like playing footsie with mud-smeared legs) is imbued with a splash of the poetic. The problems with Maryan arise when this poetry is spilled on a larger canvas.

As long as the film is confined to the coastal village that is Maryan’s hometown, it is on sure ground, and the director’s indulgences (a dreamy pace, for starters) serve the story well — but once the Roja-like narrative switch is turned on at interval point, these pluses turn into minuses. We need less poetry, more punch. And while the power of love is the narrative motor, there’s a sense of incompleteness when the other aspects of the plot aren’t developed as strongly. Sometimes, love is not all you need.

We need, for instance, memorable villains. But the Sudanese bad guys come off more like drugged-out school kids, alternating between campfire frat parties and psychotic episodes — and their leader is delineated solely by means of a skull he wears on a necklace. (They’re otherwise indistinguishable.) And we need to feel the thrill of Maryan’s escape. The central conceit of the film — and it’s a terrific one — is that Maryan is a hero when he’s by the sea, and there’s nothing heroic about him when he’s taken away to a place as far away as possible from the sea. The second half of the film, which is about this son of the sea ending up like a fish out of water, doesn’t register as strongly as the first, with its entrancing love story.

But the slog through these stretches is made worthwhile when Maryan returns home, and we see how Parvathi responds to his presence, registering his physicality first, the fact that he’s really there, and then falling gently into his arms. It’s the quietest of reunions, and it reaffirms what we’ve almost forgotten in Tamil cinema, that love stories are a two-way street, and they need a strong actress as much as an actor. Where has she been hiding all this while?

Genre: Action-romance

Director: Bharatbala

Cast: Dhanush, Parvathi, Appukutty

Storyline: A contract worker in Sudan is abducted by mercenaries; his lover in India awaits his return.

Bottomline: A wonderful romance, but needed to be more.

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Tamil Cinema ReviewsOctober 18, 2011