Friday, April 20, 2012
Movie Review: A Passage To India (1984)
David Lean's first film after a 14 year hiatus is a luxurious adaptation of E. M. Forster's A Passage To India. An exploration of the British ruling a quietly seething India, Lean succeeds at producing a visually lush experience that moves slowly but with purpose towards condemning an elitist culture.
One Englishman who is doing just that is college teacher Richard Fielding (James Fox), who befriends the locals, including Professor Godbole (Alec Guinness), and treats them with respect. Through Fielding, Adela and Mrs. Moore meet the young Doctor Aziz (Victor Banerjee). Eager to please the English and finding Mrs. Moore particularly pleasant, Aziz plans a day trip for the ladies to the remote and mysterious Marabar Caves. The trip quickly descends from enthralling to catastrophic when something horrible happens to Adela inside one of the caves, and Aziz is accused of attempted rape. His arrest and subsequent trial galvanize the local population, and sets the rulers against the ruled in a test of the true powers of justice.
And yet. In a display of the local civic infrastructure that the English did construct despite their haughtiness, the otherwise arrogant Heaslop has an Indian magistrate as his deputy, and it is this local judge who is allowed by the English to preside over Dr. Aziz's trial. Fielding is immersed in Indian culture, respectful of the country's people and customs, friends with the eccentric Godbole and quick to warm up to Dr. Aziz. And the film is critical of the English rulers, not the English: both Adela and Mrs. Moore are as resentful of the local rulers as the Indians, and both demonstrate genuine willingness to discover the real India and socialize with the locals. In Adela's case, this comes at the risk of rupturing her relationship with Heaslop.
Lean captures this complex dynamic with his trademark artistry, every frame a landscaped masterpiece of composition, colour and emotion. At more than 160 minutes, A Passage To India does not move quickly, but rarely does it dawdle. Most scenes have a purpose in moving the narrative forward and providing further depth to the characters, although some sharper editing (again, by Lean) would have been welcome.
A Passage To India is a fitting ending to Lean's career. A grand, assured and memorable canvass, signed by a master of elegant film-making.
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