I don’t know why I watched this. I probably own a couple of hundred films that I’m yet to see and want to see. I have access to movies on TV and online which are less likely to rouse my chippy working class indignance. On principle I won’t watch a film of that length without a good reason; reputation, subject matter and so on. And I’ve yet to see one of those eighties period pieces about colonialism or punting on the Thames or running round an Oxbridge courtyard that didn’t make me furious with myself. I mean come on, a near three hour adaptation of a classic novel stuffed with upper class, stiff upper lip, soulless, heartless, amoral Victorian cunts treating the indigenous population as slaves or worse and featuring Alec Guinness blacked up like a fucking minstrel when I could be watching Animal House or Scream, Blacula, Scream?
There are thousands of great reasons for me not to watch this fucking film. Even David Cairns a David Lean fan and a man who knows more about films than I could learn in ten lifetimes warned me via the miracle of Twitter that it isn’t much of a film. And still I went ahead- against sound advice, against my instincts, in the face of my deeply-ingrained class prejudices, and in spite of all rational sense I sat down for the one hundred and seventy minute duration with a cup of tea and a mind as open as I could prise it. Inevitably the payoff to this preamble would be that I loved it in spite of everything and, while I can’t honestly say that I loved it, who am I to fly in the face of the immutable universal law of inevitability? Well, just as Edgar Allen Poe’s imp of the perverse made me watch it, the same streak of wishful unpredictability ensures that I thought it was okay. Pretty good. A bit better than average. But probably still unworthy of such a fine director or of the vast effort that had clearly gone into it. Which is something it has in common with these notes, I suppose.
A Passage To India opens with English rain on a crowded London street with black umbrellas jostling for position on a pavement outside a P&O Office- Les Parapluies de Cherbourg this is most certainly not– and then, after a brief scene-setting interlude within that office- cuts to a vast Indian port decked out in full regalia to welcome eminent British arrivals. The bright, colourful and noisy scenes juxtaposed with the claustrophobic drabness of England throws up a contrast which demonstrates how discombobulated Adela Quested (Judy Davis) and Mrs Moore (Dame Peggy Ashcroft in the kind of showy supporting role that actresses will slay young babies for) are upon arrival. We also see a recurring visual theme of the film introduced here, the opulence and splendour which the British enjoy in contrast with the local conditions of poverty and destitution. Okay, it’s not what you’d consider groundbreaking stuff but it’s neither a whitewash (bad choice of words that) of the situation, nor a Slumdog Millionaire-style comedy at the expense of the starving.
The British, meanwhile, are portrayed, as the British always are, as buttoned-up and overly civil who seethe with resentment for everyone and everything else, who value nothing more than their privacy, treat everyone ‘below their station’ with hostility and sneer as frequently as they breathe. If Miss Quested and Mrs Moore are surprised that the British have nothing to do with the locals socially- “East is East, it’s a question of culture”, then everyone else is far more taken aback by the idea that they would even want to. And this cultural/colour divide is what gives the story its interest for me, not only because I am still surprised to hear people express in all seriousness “what I believe to be a universal truth: the darker races are attracted to the fairer, but not vice-versa” but because Lean’s treatment of the topic is admirably even-handed: “they all become exactly the same, I give any Englishman two It is interesting, though, that I didn’t hear one racist term used throughout the course of the film- as if the very mention of the British or Indians is sufficient to generate the impression that they are being maligned. Maybe the use of racist terms was progress from this state of affairs with its tacit acknowledgement that they’re not all bad. Interesting idea that.
The script itself doesn’t really justify the lengthy running time, there are wonderful scenes in amongst the self-indulgent going nowhere scenes just as the are some truly wonderful shots amongst some pretty pretentious ones. The pace picks up a little for the last hour but I remember thinking how this was ‘as pretty as a postcard and almost as full of intrigue and drama as one too’ (what was that about pretentiousness?) and really the whole thing is overblown and unnecessary. My lack of formal knowledge of film-making means that I don’t know if Lean’s dual role of Director and Editor contributes to this, or if it is simply his reputation preventing the producers stepping in and saying “come on Dave, how many shots of the sea at night do you really need?” or if it was just the done thing to overdo it in the eighties (it certainly was when it came to hair and shoulder pads after all).
The saving grace of the film- aside from my joy in seeing the upper classes slapped down by the masses- is the performances. And they are also one of its great handicaps. Aside from Alec Guiness doing his best It Ain’t Half Hot Mum turn as the Sikh cleric Godbole, the actors are credible and hold the interest. I think the world of Alec Guinness but what in God’s name persuaded him that this was a good idea- I’d honestly rather see him fannying about in Star Wars than selling himself short in this. Peggy Ashcroft gets the showiest role and makes the most of it, Judy Davis is very strong as the lead female (she’s pretty new to me, I only know her from Who Dares Wins and I wouldn’t judge anyone on that shambles), James Fox is excellent and understated as Richard Fielding, Nigel Havers plays Nigel Havers as he always does but for me the outstanding player on show was Victor Banerjee as Dr Aziz. It is only after the trial, that the strength of his earlier performance is revealed. He had been charming and urbane, civil to the point of obsequiousness and horribly grateful for even the merest civility. Following his ordeal he is pointed and callous, unable to distinguish between friends and enemies and the contrast between his wounded blitheness is and his prior subservience gives the film a human authenticity it would otherwise have lacked.
And that is the problem too. In spite of all of the colour and pageantry and the exotic locales and the often wonderful soundtrack (Maurice Jarre) and sumptuous cinematography (Ernest Day), this is a little human drama which is ill-served by Lean’s epic style. However hard you try, you simply cannot make Up The Junction work like Lawrence of Arabia and the same applies here. The scope is too big and too ambitious and the plot is too small and concentrated and the gap between these extremes (like the perception gap between the British and Indians) is where failure lies. 6/10 for all its useless beauty.