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A Passage to India

Novels exploring the intricacies of society, class and manners are notoriously challenging to film; these books (usually, but not always, written about the British upper class) are less about the apparent storyline and more about the world the characters exist in, where collar buttons, tea sandwiches, social position, and propriety are of tantamount importance, and a single, inappropriate action can ruin one's standing with the "right" people. The Merchant-Ivory team created a cottage industry around such movies, including film adaptations of E.M. Forster's A Room with a View, Maurice, and Howard's End. Martin Scorsese succeeded beyond all expectation with his sumptuous, excruciating adaptation of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. And Sir David Lean gave us the most sweeping version of a Forster novel, 1984's A Passage to India. Lean's last film, while certainly not in the class of Lawrence of Arabia or Bridge on the River Kwai, is nonetheless a fine capper to his exemplary career — made all the more impressive by the fact that he had taken a 14-year break from directing before he made the film. The story concerns two British women, elderly Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) and uptight young virgin Adela Quested (Judy Davis), who travel to India to visit Mrs. Moore's twit son, Ronny (Nigel Havers), who's been installed as the new magistrate. Horrified by the snobby colonialism of the occupying Brits, they insist upon seeing "the real India" and quickly make friends with a local physician, Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee) and the minister of education, Prof. Godbole (Alec Guiness). The film subtly begins to shift perspective, as we see more and more of Dr. Aziz — he is actually the main character of the film, and it is really through his eyes that we experience the intolerable, xenophobic stuffiness of the English. Dr. Aziz is a good man, and he wants to think well of the English people. So it's with a sort of giddy delight that he befriends Mrs. Moore, Miss Quested and another Englishman, Mr. Fielding (James Fox). Embarrassed to invite them all to his one-room cottage, Aziz proposes a trip to have a picnic at the distant Marabar Caves. However, an ill-conceived walk alone with Miss Quested leads to Aziz being accused of rape and having to stand trial as the British close ranks against him. Lean's direction is orderly and dignified, if somewhat muddled — the concept of consistent point-of-view is thrown completely out the window, the pacing is languorous to the point of plodding, and the motivations of some characters (Miss Quested, most of all) are completely unfathomable. Symbolism is at times so heavy-handed as to be laughable: Miss Quested takes a solo bicycle trip to a ruined temple where she ogles Kama-Sutraesque erotic statuary, but she is chased from the temple by a band of growling, snarling monkeys — she then agrees to marry the unthreatening Ronny, and then we see them dancing together to Gershwin's "Oh, Lady Be Good." But still... A Passage to India, if not a great film, is a fine one indeed. It's often breathtakingly beautiful, and Forster's morality play about the impossibility of a relationship between a subjugated people and those who place themselves above them still remains poignant. The cast is impeccable with the possible exception of Guiness, whose brown-faced, bespectacled portrayal of a Hindu is unfortunately reminiscent of Peter Sellers in The Party. Judy Davis is quite good in the standard broad-brimmed-hat-and-flouncy-dress role later patented by Helena Bonham Carter, and Peggy Ashcroft is transcendent as Mrs. Moore, the film's moral center. Columbia TriStar's DVD release offers A Passage to India in a gorgeous anamorphic transfer (1.85:1), with audio in digitally remastered Dolby 2.0 Surround; both picture and sound are clean, crisp, and rich. The disc offers "Reflections of David Lean," a few minutes of Lean sound bites as he remarks on the making of the film, as well as trailers for Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai, and Guns of Navarone. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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