Friday, April 18, 2008
A Passage to India (1984)
(Image from IMP Awards)
A Passage to India (1984)
Based on E. M. Forster's classic novel about English colonialism in India, this adaptation was acclaimed director David Lean's last film. I'm not a big fan of his epics - Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai - and haven't seen his earlier works, but this one was quite enjoyable, doubtless in part because I enjoyed the book.
The plot follows the book fairly closely - barring the usual omissions that are a necessity in film adaptations - but the ending is different as is the perspective from which the film is largely told. In the book, there was a greater focus on the Indians, particularly Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee) and his friends and their perspectives on British occupation. The film shifts the focus greatly to Adela Quested (Judy Davis) and Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) as they arrive in India with the intention of having Miss. Quested marry Mrs. Moore's son, Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers). Upon arrival, the two women are horrified to discover the schism that exists between the English and the locals, with the former treating the latter with contempt and an air of superiority. The two women, seeking to be get to know the locals better, wind up in the company of Dr. Aziz and the one Englishman who likes the Indians, Richard Fielding (James Fox), headmaster of the local college. Dr. Aziz proposes a trip for all of them to the famed Marabar Caves nearby (which none of them has bothered visiting before), during which an incident occurs that leads to Aziz being incarcerated and charged with rape. The subsequent trial brings to the fore all of the cultural and racial tensions between the two groups.
There's more to it than that of course, but as a synopsis that ought to suffice. The film lacks a lot of the texture of the book, though I can see why it makes sense from a narrative point of view to show things from the English women's point of view instead of the more fractured manner of the book - it flows better and allows the milieu to be more easily introduced. But, the loss of the Indian perspective does in some ways devalue the story and diminishes the commentary on colonialism that permeated the book. On the other hand, in both the book and the film Aziz and his friends come across as a fairly insufferable, whiny bunch, so perhaps this is a good thing. Judy Davis's take on Miss Quested is more sympathetic than in the book; an improvement in my opinion as it makes her behaviour after the Marabar caves more forgivable. Fielding as portrayed by James Fox as the gentleman with an unflappable streak of decency is pretty much spot on. Banerjee's portrayal of Aziz as a hapless fool also is accurate and very entertaining. The rest of the characters are well represented in their somewhat diminished roles - Alec Guiness in blackface as the Hindu Professor Godbole is, despite being initially distracting and amusing, particularly good.
Strong performances and an atmospheric, believable recreation of a time and place lend weight to the story's themes of colonialism and racism. It's fairly slow and quaint and won't set your pulse racing, but it's a worthwhile film and a very good adaptation. As for the ending, I personally think that the more optimistic ending is apt for the post-colonial era in which the film was made, even if it isn't true to the original story, which was written during occupation. The film is more Hollywood, but it works, and it's one of those changes I can get behind.