Monday, September 3, 2012

A Passage to India (1984) -- David Lean

Cultures clash in this story set at the height of English colonialism when a repressed English woman comes to India to visit her potential fiance, Ronny, an ambitious bore who serves as a local magistrate in Chandrapore. Adela Quested (Judy Davis) is accompanied by her future mother-in-law, Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft). Both women want to see the real India and meet indigenous people, and not restrict their activities to the stuffy British social club, where British authorities and their wives behave with priggishness and snobbery toward all Indians. Mrs. Moore strikes up a friendship with Dr. Aziz, who, wanting to impress, foolishly arranges for a visit to the Marabar caves, a sort of tourist attraction known for disaffecting echoes. Here, both women experience strange emotions that ignite an incident that brings to a dramatic head the simmering racial tension and prejudices existing between the two cultures.

The caravan to the Malabar Caves.

Harking back to earlier days in the director chair, David Lean draws on a superb novel as the source for his final film. He achieved near perfection with his take on Dickens' Great Expectations in 1946, (less successfully with 1965's Dr. Zhivago), and here taps E.M Forster's acclaimed A Passage to India, named one of the 20th Century's greatest English-language novels by scores of critics, including The Modern Library, NPR, Time, and Random House. His transfer from page to screen here is similarly faithful to the source, capturing Forster's complex and subtle themes.

Lean is always thinking visually, and here, like all his best films, he makes sure to include several magnificent wide-screen shots designed to pull the viewer into the setting: a gorgeous shot of a distant train moving under the moonlit landscape, the painted elephant trudging up the Marabar hills, the valley of the holy Ganges, majestic Himalayan peaks, and a dugout canoe being paddled through water lilies. Beautiful stuff. If Lean is at fault, it is not including a few more such vistas. The scenes of crowds in the city in particular are done in either closeup or mid-range, losing all sense of location and much of their impact. You have the feel that the crowd is not really all that big. Overall, there seems too much tight camerawork for such an exotic country.

Judy Davis as Adela Quested.

The acting is terrific throughout, especially James Fox as Mr. Fielding, the enlightened head of the college and the only Westerner who considers Indians as equals rather than mere subjects. While other transplanted British officials look down their long upturned noses at the natives, Fielding welcomes interaction and also befriends Dr. Aziz. Fielding aligns himself with Aziz after the doctor is accused of a crime, placing him at odds with his fellow countrymen, who naturally assume Aziz guilt, even with scant evidence. Fox does a great job as the conflicted Fielding. The educator believes Britain's presence is useful for India, helping bring needed order to the country, but he is keenly cognizant that its imperialistic attitude toward the people is doomed to fail, and at times, is disgraceful. A more humane, enlightened approach would better serve both parties. And his bemusement rather than scorn of the religious beliefs of Hindus and Muslims sets him apart.

Brave to support Aziz, the friendship between the two is as much a part of the story as Miss Quested's ordeal, as it represents a microcosm of the two country's relationship, and asks the question if the West and East can co-exist in harmony.

Davis is effective too as a young woman, confused about her future and unsure that marriage to Ronny would make her happy. Lean altered an important scene for her character from the novel, changing the setting from a car accident she experiences with Ronny. Instead, Lean has her finding an abandoned temple on her own. A good decision as it better hints at her state of mind and helps explain what may happen later. On a bike ride in the countryside and tall grass Adela suddenly comes upon some old ruins. The heat is oppressive, the air stagnant. Sexually suggestive statuary and images adorn the walls and lay on the ground. She stands somewhat dazed and experiences a brief inner crisis. It's a perfectly acted moment, without words, that gives us insight into the girl's thoughts. She's having a hard time keeping it together in this strange land. Davis plays it all with her face and eyes. It is wonderfully edited, the camera switching between the figures and Adela, with one slow pull in to her face.         

Miss Quested, Mrs. Moore, and Dr. Aziz about to enter a cave.
Going into detail about the alleged crime would spoil the film's most interesting sequence for those who haven't seen it. Suffice it to say it involves those mysterious Marabar caves. Some readers of the novel and viewers of the film claim some ambiguity about Aziz's guilt. But whatever may have been author Forster or Lean's intent, it is clear to me what did not happened, even if what did happen is not fully explained.

Dr. Aziz looks for Miss Quested in the cave.

In any case, Aziz is arrested and a trial takes place, setting up the story's climax. The parties take clear sides and we see how misunderstanding is fueled by parochial interests and narrow mindedness. It is all resolved far too quickly for my taste, both in the novel and film.

Forster's book is filled with beautiful writing, which conveys the underlying prejudices of both sides. Lean's second change is in altering one of the most famous passages, attributing a quip to the defense attorney rather than an anonymous person in the packed courtroom:

McBryde (police chief and prosecutor at the trial) "Before we begin, I'd like to state what I believe to be a universal truth: the darker races are attracted to the fairer, but not vice-versa."
Advocate Amrit Rao: "Even when the lady is LESS attractive than the gentleman? "
[court breaks out in laughter]

The exchange embarrasses the young woman, and seems much crueler here than the novel, coming from an accomplished Indian man, whose status as an attorney puts him nearly on par with the Britishers.  Lean seems intent on suggesting it is not just the British who could use an attitude adjustment. And indeed, fault lies on both sides. Later Aziz will jump to a conclusion about something regarding Fielding, showing we are all colored by preconceived notions of others' motives. In any case, Davis the actress is far more attractive than the character Adela depicted in the novel, making the quip less sensible.

Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested have tea at the club. No Indians are allowed.
Alex Guinness plays the equable Godbole, an odd Hindu teacher who talks in riddles and seemingly innocuous statements. Nothing fazes him. For those of us in the West, India will always be a perplexing place, or as Fielding suggests, a muddle. But Godbole doesn't see anything that way. When Fielding asks how he can help Aziz, Godbole, unconcerned, suggests the man's fate is already certain:

Professor Godbole: Nothing you will do will change the outcome. .
Fielding: So "Do nothing!" Is that your philosophy?
GodboleMy philosophy is you can do what you like... but the outcome will be the same.

Guinness' makeup is a slight distraction. It looks as if he has been coated with brown shoe polish. But surely he must have been pleased with the role. It marked his sixth collaboration with Lean and was a nice return to respectability following a film he reportedly felt foolish making, Star Wars.

Overall, the film garnered 11 Oscar nominations, including Davis for Best Actress, Lean for Best Director and Best Editing, and the film for Best Picture. It was up against stiff competition in several categories as it was the year of Amadeus, winner of eight. A Passage to India won just two: Ashcroft for Supporting Actress and Maurice Jarre for Best Score. Ashcroft did a fine job but Jarre's award seems unwarranted. The score is most present over the titles, at start and finish, and sounds more appropriate for an Agatha Christie film and one set in India. It does little to support the mood of the action.

One well-deserved nomination was for Best Costume Design, as evidenced by the authentic and colorful Indian saris throughout. And Davis' Edwardian outfits look terrific.  

The revered Mrs. Moore -- Peggy Ashcroft.

If not the masterpiece of Lawrence of Arabia, this is still a finely crafted and acted film. A splendid swan song for Director Lean. Want to more about author E.M. Forster? Click here.


  1. An excellent and thoughtful review. I saw this movie many years ago - when it was first released on VHS! - and I was really underwhelmed by it. However, after reading your post, I think I need to give it a second chance. (I laughed when you talked about Alec Guiness being covered in brown shoe polish!)

  2. Hi, Silver. I agree this isn't one that'll overwhelm many viewers, but there are aspects that are very nice. Watching it, you have to marvel at the logistics Lean went through to make it. Today, computers have too often replaced "on location" shoots. If you do give it another go, I'd be interested in how you like it.