In the early 20th century, Miss Quested (Judy Davis) and her soon-to-be mother-in-law, Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft, right), arrive in India, where they’re met by Ronny Moore (Nigel Havers), a young and self-righteous representative of the British Empire.
During their stay, a local Muslim physician, Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee), befriends the two women. All goes well until something strange happens in the dark and foreboding Marabar Caves. A distraught Miss Quested then accuses Dr. Aziz of having attempted to rape her. A trial ensues. [Note: Spoilers ahead.]
- Director-screenwriter-editor David Lean offers an intelligent and mostly subtle adaptation of E. M. Forster’s 1924 novel, itself a critique of both the British Empire and the British, who in the 19th and early 20th century apparently believed themselves to be members of God’s Chosen Master Race.
- A Passage to India is a stunning-looking film, offering an authentic sense of time and place. Better yet, Judy Moorcroft’s colorful costumes, John Box’s elaborate production design, and Ernest Day’s lush cinematography never dwarf the human drama.
- Judy Davis is outstanding as the sexually repressed heroine we can both despise and sympathize with; veteran stage (and The Jewel in the Crown) star Peggy Ashcroft is flawless as the embodiment of the open-minded, compassionate “West” – which, perhaps not coincidentally, gets swallowed up by the “East”; and a politically incorrect but highly effective Alec Guinness is fully believable as a cryptic Indian wiseman. Both Davis and Ashcroft were nominated for Academy Awards; Ashcroft, though as much a lead as Davis, was placed in the supporting actress category and came out victorious.
- Historical importance: A Passage to India was David Lean’s final film.
- The worst thing about A Passage to India is, unfortunately, the epilogue. David Lean – departing from Forster’s novel – should have left the viewer wondering about what really happened inside those caves. Personally, I think that would have been much more effective than a clear-cut resolution.
- Compounding matters, Lean makes sure we know that not only Dr. Aziz (i.e., The East) is innocent, but that he has a heart bigger than the largest Marabar cave. The unjustly accused doctor is thus capable of forgiving sexually repressed, self-deluded European Christians who believe themselves superior to other cultures and ethnicities even though they can’t even handle their own (quite natural) inner urges. This is the sort of life-affirming, crowd-pleasing, feel-good finale that belongs to intellectually challenged Hollywood productions, not to an adult drama. Forster’s book offers a less squeaky-clean view of Dr. Aziz and a more ambivalent ending.
- Victor Banerjee’s performance should have been more controlled. However politically incorrect his make-up may have been, Alec Guinness could have taught Banerjee a lesson or two in that regard. Guinness would probably have scratched out most of Dr. Aziz’s annoying “Mrs. Moore!!” exclamations as well.
- Maurice Jarre’s Oscar-winning Old Hollywood score is woefully inappropriate. Jarre used high, vibrant notes (it’s an epic, see?) when scenes required something more intimate and delicate.
A Passage to India‘s Marabar Caves don’t exist; they were inspired by the Barabar Caves located in northwestern India. David Lean’s film, however, was shot near Bangalore, in southern India. That’s where the Marabar Caves were “constructed” for the production.
A Passage to India is a solid, well-directed and mostly well-acted intimate epic, but one that only partially succeeds in its depiction of the relationship between the Twain, which not only did meet but got stuck in a loveless marriage for a very long time.
A Passage to India (1984). Director: David Lean. Screenplay: David Lean; from E. M. Forster’s 1924 novel and Santha Rama Rau’s 1960 play. Cast: Judy Davis, Victor Banerjee, Peggy Ashcroft, Alec Guinness, Nigel Havers, James Fox, Richard Wilson, Saeed Jaffrey, Roshan Seth.