By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
Perhaps no director deserves the title of “Master of Epics” quite like David Lean. Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, The Bridge Over the River Kwai; hell, he even made Oliver Twist and Great Expectations feel like broad, sweeping tales. Everything he did was epic.
Especially the sex. Especially.
His final film, and his first after a 14 year break, was A Passage to India, a 1984 film that easily could have been made in 1964, and I mean that entirely positively. It’s about a young Englishwoman (Judy Davis) who travels with her fiancee’s mother (Peggy Ashcroft) to meet her fiancée in India, where he’s a provincial judge. Once there, the two women are turned off by their countrymen’s colonialist attitudes, and become friends with two Indian men, painfully earnest Aziz (Victor Banerjee) and the philosophical Godbole (Alec Guinness), and a compassionate Englishman with a similar worldview (James Fox). Tragedy strikes, however,, after an ill-fated tourist excursion to the Malabar Caves, and the fallout changes all of their lives.
I mentioned in the intro that this film was a throwback, in every good sense. The period setting helps, but Lean employs all of his well-honed skills to shoot an expansively gorgeous film that feels larger than life without ever losing touch with the very lives that make it so. He also brings his typical sneakily scathing view of the folly of the British imperialist mindset, overwhelmingly presenting the Indians in the film in a more positive light and showing the stirrings of their independence movement.
Yeah, fuck polo.
The acting is what makes the film, though. It’s nearly impossible to pick a standout. Banerjee and Ashcroft both deliver tremendously affecting performances, Ashcroft in particular teaching a master class in subtlety, but James Fox is nearly their equal as a truly decent man surrounded by indecency and prejudice. Judy Davis is given a bit of a raw deal by the script, but still does well, and Alec Guinness gets to try Yoda on for size basically, but I do have to say, he’s one of the very few Caucasian actors who were able to fit entirely naturally into a non-Caucasian role.
This was more in the so wrong it’s right category.
About Davis- her character is asked to fluctuate a bit beyond the point of believability. When E.M. Forster wrote his novel in 1924, hysteria might have seemed like a valid character choice, but by 1984 it didn’t make much sense, and now it seems ridiculously quaint. Perhaps if the Malabar Caves had held more terror than some mild echoing, it would’ve been more plausible.
Here is literally no reason for the tacked on postscript ending except to remove most of the bitter from the already perfect bittersweet end of the main story. Well, that and to let Lean train his cameras on beautiful Srinigar, I guess.
Even if it shows a weakness for melodrama from time to time, A Passage to India is a beautifully acted and directed throwback epic.
Take a Drink: whenever a Brit is a prissy and/or racist shit
Take a Drink: for signs of colonial disquiet
Take a Drink: for drily British insults
Take a Drink: whenever David’s an entitled ass
Do a Shot: when you win Where’s Waldo: Alec Guinness Edition
Do a Shot: for lady blue balls