#9 in my ranking of David Lean’s films.
David Lean ends his career with a return to form. After a fourteen year hiatus because of the critical drubbing he received from Ryan’s Daughter (including a meeting where critics showed the worst of themselves and lorded over Lean like a red-headed stepchild), he returned with an adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel of a young English woman going to India and the accusations of rape that arise from a trip to some remote caves. His first movie under three hours since The Bridge on the River Kwai, A Passage to India contains a focus and integration of large and small stories that had been escaping Lean since Lawrence of Arabia. I think it fall short of greatness, but it’s still a solidly built and wonderfully produced film.
Adela Quested is travelling with Mrs. Moore, the mother of her almost fiancé, to India. They are met with the pomp of Indian life but also the disparity of the British life and the native Indian life immediately. That difference is the undercurrent of every action in the film. Adela doesn’t understand the ways of either the natives or the colonials, and she questions everything. At the same time, she watches Ronny, her presumed fiancé, do his work as a local magistrate and he performs his duties seriously as well as, most likely, overzealously in an attempt to bring civilization to the country. She sees how the British barely interact with the people they rule, and she finds it unappealing.
This really is Lean at his best when it comes to spectacle. Not only do we see beautiful sights of India and the Raj. From the bright and vibrant colors of women’s gowns and flowers and decorations to the stately manors of the British rule, India looks amazing. At the same time, it performs an important narrative function in demonstrating how the two societies clash. They both contain their beauty, but they don’t really belong together. This plays out in character interactions as well, but it’s nice to see Lean using the spectacle to advance the specific story again. It felt like something he had lost sight of when he envisioned great big things to film.
Adela meets Dr. Aziz Ahmed, a kind, overeager Indian physician who is desperate to bridge the gap between Indian and British as much as he can personally, through a professor at the local college, Richard. Aziz, in an overabundance of hospitality, invites Adela, Mrs. Moore, and Richard to see some remote caves as a cover to disinvite them to his own small house that seems so meager against the wealth of the British. The trip becomes an expensive affair with servants, tables, alcohol, and elephant mounts to get there and enjoy the day, but Aziz insists on continuing. Due to a mishap, Richard can’t make the train and ends up running behind leaving Aziz with Adela and Mrs. Moore. The caves end up overwhelming Mrs. Moore, leaving Adela and Aziz to go up on their own. There, Adela has an event, it’s unclear what, and she runs down to the newly arrived car carrying Richard as she gets covered in cuts and bruises, and she drives away. The implication is clear. Aziz tried to rape Adela.
Now, I was reminded of Lean’s least film, Madeleine, as this movie moved into its third act. Both films are told from the perspectives of two people who should see the central event, both skip over the specifics of the central event, and then both move into courtroom centric actions. A Passage to India works much better, though. Where Madeleine dragged out a rather rote summation of events, A Passage to India keeps the focus on the characters, their motivations, and the motivations of the system of the Raj in trying to immediately pin the crime on Aziz even though there is reasonable doubt. Richard’s insistence on standing by Aziz, convinced that this very good man would never do such a thing as he was accused of tears Richard from his social circle completely.
My only real problem with this whole thing is that Aziz is simply too good of a guy. He’s a fantastically giving and open man, eager to please those he sees as his social betters. There was never an instant of doubt in my mind that he didn’t do the deed, and I think that makes the underlying point just too easy that there was a two-tiered justice system in India under British rule. Making Aziz such a good person, such a likeable one, simply puts the point in bold and underlines it in the text of the film, making sure that no one can in the audience could possibly miss the central message. There’s little subtlety to the idea.
That being said, Aziz’s turn late in the movie, when he finally gives up his wide-eyed optimism for the British and becomes completely embittered by the experience, especially by the fact that Adela herself simply gives up the charges in the middle of court after Aziz’s name has been dragged through the mud for weeks, is really good. Victor Banerjee wonderfully captures both sides of the changing man. Apparently he and Lean clashed (Lean seemed to clash with every on this set), but Banerjee comes out on top with a great performance.
Judy Davis as Adela is also quite good. Recently discovered from Australia mostly because of her very good central performance in My Brilliant Career, she also clashed with Lean, once yelling at him that he didn’t understand women. And yet, she imbues Adela with wonderful complexities. She comes to India with the same kind of wide-eyed gaze as Aziz, but she’s instantly bored by the Britishness of her surroundings and turned off by the overbearing behavior of Ronny in his official role as magistrate as well as his everyday social aspect towards the Indians. She breaks off the engagement and re-engages over a matter of days, implying a sexual confusion about what she wants and who she is. Aziz is a good looking young Indian who leads her to see some remote caves, and when she goes alone in those caves, confronted by nothing but herself and her confusion and she sees Aziz at the entrance, she freaks out. However, it’s not something she can easily recover from, and it takes great courage to do it. Davis wonderfully captures the conflicting emotions at every stage of Adela’s journey.
Really, both characters end up as pawns of a larger fight, losing their own humanities in different ways. Adela simply loses her voice and the British imperial government speaks for her without her input. Aziz gets trapped in a series of lies that he can’t escape except by one great act that he can’t appreciate at the time. The process can only be broken by a completely selfless and brave act. The fact that Aziz can’t see that act for what it is, but only as one more selfish act in a series designed to hurt him is a result of those in the system around them trying to use each person as pawns in their own fights.
There are a couple of characters on the edges of this movie that tell me where a lot of the cut material from the film went. Alec Guinness’s Professor Godbole is an obvious one. He drifts in and out of scenes to say vaguely Indian/karmic things, and it’s not the sort of thing you hire Alec Guinness for. I’ve obviously never seen the material cut, but it really doesn’t surprise me, considering how surprisingly insignificant the role became in the final cut, that Guinness and Lean had a falling out over that decision. The other character is Roshan Seth as Advocate Amrit Rao. Rao gets introduced to surprisingly strong fanfare with people talking about him almost in whispers as they are in awe of his decision to become involved in the case, and once he’s in the courtroom he does surprisingly little. The one big thing he does, which is convince Aziz to go after Adela for damages after he’s cleared, happens offscreen. I can’t help but feel that he was cut down heavily too. I don’t know what these two characters might have added in a longer cut, but it does feel like the decision to cut them down should have come at the script stage instead of the editing one. Their combination of star power and build up imply greater roles than what they have.
So, I don’t agree that A Passage to India is Lean’s last masterpiece, that was Lawrence of Arabia. What A Passage to India represents is David Lean re-applying the earliest lessons of his filmmaking career after a fourteen year hiatus. This is David Lean figuring out how to use epic filmmaking appropriately while balancing it with an intimate story. This is David Lean at his most colorful since Summertime. This is David Lean going out on a strong, confident note.