Passage to India, A (1984)
Release Date: December 14th, 1984 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: David Lean Actors: Judy Davis, Victor Banerjee, Peggy Ashcroft, James Fox, Alec Guinness, Nigel Havers, Richard Wilson, Art Malik
avid Lean’s highly regarded film “A Passage to India” was nominated for a whopping 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Yet what makes this film so unusual is that it really didn’t deserve to be nominated for anything at all. It’s excruciatingly interminable, long-winded, and meandering, even though the basic story is comparable to “Atonement” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” in that it deals with innocent victims and unfair verdicts. And while the political and racial tensions of colonial India provide a unique backdrop to the predictable plot, the uninspiring manner in which it all unfolds is unforgivable.
Adela Quested (Judy Davis) seeks adventure when she travels to India with soon-to-be mother-in-law Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft). Arriving to join fiancé Ronny (Nigel Havers), she immediately wishes to meet with some of the local Indians, even though the British simply don’t mingle with them much. Elated to spend time with Adela, Mrs. Moore, and the highly respected Englishman Richard Fielding (James Fox), native Dr. Aziz Ahmed (Victor Banerjee) invites the lot to tour the popular landmark of the Marabar Caves. During their fieldtrip, Adela becomes hysterical inside one of the dark caverns, but manages to run away after getting entangled in cactus and covered with blood.
Aziz is instantly the target for blame, finding himself arrested by the authorities for attempted rape. Mrs. Moore, who believes in Aziz’ innocence, leaves India at the request of her son, who is inconveniently an influential British political leader. Knowing that the luckless doctor will receive an unfair trial, Fielding aids in his defense, against the wishes of his peers. As the courtroom case progresses, tensions build between the angry mob of Indian supporters and the British nobles, who are sure of Aziz’ guilt, despite hearsay and a lack of evidence posing numerous questions.
“A Passage to India” won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, going to Peggy Ashcroft for her faithful yet dull portrayal of Mrs. Moore. While adequate, her performance is not of the caliber that demands accolades. The second win went to regular Lean composer Maurice Jarre for his stirring musical score, which contains a rousing theme song that, when heard, signifies an unusually grand occasion. However, the music is only truly noticeable at the start, dwindling away to nothing during the rather lengthy subsequent acts.
Nine other Oscar nominations were euchred out of the Academy, including Best Actress for Judy Davis, as well as Best Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Editing, all for David Lean. Considering he helmed such indisputable classics as “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Doctor Zhivago,” and “Lawrence of Arabia,” it is expected that anything he tackles will be epic and bold. But for a film that received so much praise, “A Passage to India” is terribly conventional. The acting is questionable at times, especially from Victor Banerjee, who plays his role so over-the-top that it’s difficult to take the forced naiveté seriously. Davis is more admirable in her turn, but her character is just despicable enough (or perhaps it’s just the hot weather) that focusing on her talent isn’t a dominant concern.
In her search for excitement, Adela wishes to explore India, but the country doesn’t readily accept her. Many scenes are devoted to portraying the Indians as mysterious and culturally unexplainable, while substantial issues of racism and segregation are ever-present in the political turmoil that displays the misunderstandings and bullheaded beliefs of the corrupt British leaders. As the highlight of the film, Professor Godbole (Alec Guinness, in a wonderfully comedic role) passes riddles of wisdom from person to person; but by the foreseeable conclusion, it’s too late to save the project from its place amongst well-intentioned, immensely mediocre moviemaking.
– Mike Massie