Friday 20 April 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.

It's the early 1920s, and Adela Quested (Judy Davis) travels to India with her presumed future mother-in-law Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft). Adela is planning to marry Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers), a local magistrate doling out dismissive justice against the local Indian community. Both Adela and Mrs. Moore are horrified by the condescending attitude of the local English rulers towards the Indian population, and seek to reach out and experience the real India.

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.

A Passage To India examines the English flexing their imperial muscles, and finds little to like. Lean himself adapted Forster's book, and the colonialists are portrayed as only superficially polite, and generally pompous, insufferable and openly racist. Other than servants, the Indians are kept out of  "the Club" where the English enjoy their social gatherings, and the locals are generally treated as inconvenient.

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.

As with the contradictions among the English, A Passage To India delves into the conflicted Indian psyche. Dr. Aziz and his friends resent being ruled by the English, but at the same time can hide neither their admiration nor appreciation. Eager to please and just as eager to complain, the Indians crave respect and autonomy as much as they fear the unknowns and responsibilities that come with independence. Two cultures, dancing awkwardly towards an uncertain future, neither fully respecting the relationship nor willing to sever it.

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.

Within the narrow confines of expected proper English behaviour, Davis, Ashcroft and Fox have to display emotions through the slightest of gestures. The barely noticeable narrowing of the eyes and tightening of the mouth are sufficient for all three to successfully portray feelings ranging from astonishment to anguish. Banerjee's character allows him to be more animated, his portrayal of Dr. Aziz representing India's subservience, disillusionment and emergence into a more confident identity.

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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