Review: A Passage to India (1984)

A Passage to India


David Lean
David Lean (Play: Santha Rama Rau; adapted from Novel: E.M. Forster)
164 min.
Judy Davis, Victor Banerjee, Peggy Ashcroft, James Fox, Alec Guinness, Nigel Havers, Michael Culver, Clive Swift, Art Malik, Saeed Jaffrey, Roshan Seth, Richard Wilson
MPAA Rating

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Source Material

The intimacy of a costume drama meets the sturdiness of David Lean’s durable exterior cinematography in his final film A Passage to India.

Travelling to the British colony of India, young Adela Quested (Judy Davis), where she will engage and marry Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers), a local magistrate. Ronny’s mother Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) is her curious elderly travelling companion. Far removed from the realities on the ground in India, Adela and Mrs. Moore joyously anticipate the explorations they will get to do when they arrive, seeing the remarkable countryside and meeting the exotic peoples. There, they are introduced to a friendly native doctor, Dr. Aziz Ahmet (Victor Banerjee), brought up in British custom, but because of his skin color still considered an inferior local. Aziz becomes friends with Richard Fielding (James Fox), the headmaster of a local college who respects the people of the country even if his superiors and the government do not.

Mrs. Moore and Adela are far from your standard British citizens. They don’t expect unequal treatment and they respect the native citizens for their heritage and personage and not because they are superior to them. But they are at odds with the rest of the colonials in India who treat the people like servants, they ignore their frustrations and poverty in favor of living to the standards to which they are accustomed. This manner of attitude makes Adela and Mrs. Moore both rather uncomfortable and more than a bit angry. Yet, they accept what happens around them for they are powerless to change it.

When Aziz goes to great expense to ensure the comfort of Adela and Mrs. Moore on an excursion to some celebrated painted caverns. Yet, when they get into the vast caverns and the echoes begin to play with their sanity, Mrs. Moore flees to the safety of the sun while Adela continues on unaware of how a less crowded and more echoing chamber might effect her. Her mind begins to shatter and she runs screaming from the cave, tumbles down a hill and is picked up by a nosy colonial who takes her back to the town where she spins the story that she thinks Aziz has dragged her there in an effort to rape her. This sets off a trial that pits colonials against natives and highlights the imbalanced system of justice that exists within the colonies.

Lean’s directorial style has always favored large spectacles with gentle details and A Passage to India is no exception. There are plenty of gorgeous views and vistas to take in, but it’s the story of unrequited love, passion, misunderstanding, jealousy, bigotry and acceptance that are at the core of the film. Mrs. Moore embodies much of the curiosity the audience feels while watching the film. Through her eyes, we see the wonder of India. Ashcroft brings her a purity and beauty of soul that embeds her character in your heart. She’s not glamorous or effusive, she’s a simple woman with a marvelous and accepting nature.

Adela on the other hand, as played by Judy Davis, has many of those same qualities, but because of her youth, she also experiences trepidation and mistrust. She’s impressionable in a way that makes her feel like a mildly enlightened colonial. A terrific scene early in the film where she rides a bicycle solo to some intriguing ruins ends as a host of monkeys emerges and chases her off, terrified that they will kill her if she does not flee. Whether they would have or not is not at issue, the scene merely sets up her eventual flight from the Marabar Caves and explains why her fright has left her confused and ultimately mistaken.

There are several unsympathetic characters in the film, both on the colonial side and the native Indian side. Aziz’s friends are as mistrusting of the British as Adela’s fiancé Ronny and his cronies are. They must remain underdeveloped to keep the audience in compliance with the us vs. them story elements. In spite of this, another of the colonials, Richard Fielding, is a more rounded character. He is meant to be the voice of reason in the story, resolutely standing beside his friend Dr. Aziz while accepting not only how desperate his situation is, but understanding that the result will not likely be a favorable one. Fox’s performance succinctly creates this impression from the moment he arrives in the film. Victor Banerjee, who too frequently became the epitome of the modestly attractive Indian male in the 1980s, adds a measure of heart, loyalty and disappointment to his character. Here is a man put upon by his own culture and by the British who cannot keep from finding the positive in all things around him. His joyous comport infuses the film with energy whenever he’s on the screen. The film’s events eventually break him down, but even when his anger and frustration cause him to think and say the most disappointing things, you can understand why he would have been changed.

This is Lean at his best. Telling a story of conflict between competing cultures, exposing the bigotry and injustice inherent in an occupier-occupied state while showing audiences that there are generous, kind and compassionate people on both sides of every war, even if they are not able themselves, either through circumstance or choice, to stand up to those who perpetuate the turmoil. A Passage to India is a strong film that in spite of its flaws gives one faith that in a just world, everyone can stand side-by-side without fear.
Review Written
August 16, 2011

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