A Passage to India (1984)

David Lean’s A Passage to India (1984)


Eager to see her fiancé (Nigel Havers, TV’s Downton Abbey) who works as a city magistrate in British India, Adela Quested (Judy Davis, Husbands and Wives) travels east with her future husband’s mother, Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft, The 39 Steps). But cultural differences turn the trip into a living nightmare.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Life rarely gives us what we want at the moment we consider appropriate.”

Based on the E.M. Forster novel of the same name and adapted by director David Lean, A Passage to India marked the long-awaited return to the big screen of Lean after a fourteen-year break. Many observers waited impatiently to see if the old master still had the magic touch and most people, myself included, thought that he had indeed hit a home run with what would turn out to be his last film. This second viewing only served to reinforce my initial reaction — this is an intelligent, richly textured exercise in how “East is East, and West is West.”

It took Lean years to get over the failure of Ryan’s Daughter, but when he was ready to make another movie, he set his eyes on a film about history’s most famous mutiny, the one that occurred aboard the Royal Navy ship HMS Bounty.

Disappointed with the previous versions of the story, Lean was eager to create a more accurate depiction of the events. He shopped the script around, but couldn’t find the necessary financial backing (the film was eventually made in 1984, with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins). That’s when Lean was offered the chance to adapt Forster’s novel, which fulfilled Lean’s long-held dream of making a movie in India.

Sadly, the producers agreed to finance A Passage to India on one condition: the movie had to be shot in non-widescreen ratio (the producers were eyeing the TV market). Being a master of 70mm Panavision, this was a real blow to the director’s creativity. Lean never got over this concession. Personally, I thought Ernie Day’s cinematography was very good, but it is clearly not at the same level as Freddie Young’s brilliant work (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter).

At first glance, A Passage to India appears to be another pretty “coffee table” movie, but there’s more here than meets the eye. This movie goes to the very essence of the British occupation of India, or any occupation for that matter, providing the viewer with a valid moral lesson about the evils of Imperialism that remains true to this date.

Lean uses Judy Davis’s Adela to illustrate British wrongheadedness. Her story parallels the story of Aziz (Victor Banerjee, The Chess Players), an Indian doctor who is “more British than the British.” Although Adela is misguided and Aziz is naive, the characters mature almost simultaneously, thus becoming the perfect agents of change. Author Forster is responsible for creating the story and characters, but I’ll give director Lean credit for bringing out Forster’s complex ideas clearly and concisely.

As usual, Lean had lots of issues with his crew and actors. According to the book David Lean, A Biography by Kevin Brownlow, actress Davis outright hated Lean. In addition, Banerjee and Ashcroft refused to follow the director’s instructions, and Lean’s “frienemy,” Sir Alec Guinness (The Bridge on the River Kwai), whose role of the Indian scholar Godbole was cut down considerably, decided that he had enough and stopped speaking to the man responsible for his film career (they eventually patched up things).

Speaking of Guinness, the actor seems a bit lost here. I didn’t really mind his politically-incorrect dark make-up, but Guinness’s scenes aren’t strong enough. Something is missing here and Guinness blamed Lean for ruining his performance in the editing room. Lean insisted that Guinness’s overacting forced him to trim down the role — maybe the truth is somewhere in between.

Ironically, what you will remember most about this film is the great acting. Davis is absolutely brilliant, and Ashcroft received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Banerjee is pretty great too. The cast also includes James Fox (Thoroughly Modern Millie) as Fielding, Richard Wilson (A Dry White Season) as Turton and Roshan Seth (Gandhi) as Amritrao. Lean’s then wife, Sandra Hotz, plays Stella. Maurice Jarre’s (Doctor Zhivago) Oscar-winning music score is fantastic.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

This was never meant to be Lean’s last hurrah. The director toyed with the idea of filming J. G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (producer Steve Spielberg took over the project), before choosing Joseph Conrad’s book Nostromo as his next movie. He died in 1991 while working on the screenplay (Conrad’s book was made into a TV mini-series). A Passage to India is the perfect swan song for one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers. Color, 164 minutes, Rated PG.

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