“My dear, life rarely gives us what we want at the moment we consider appropriate. Adventures do occur, but not punctually.”
For about 20 years, from the mind 40s to the mid 60s, if a studio wanted to make a big, grand, epic, gorgeous adaptation of an important novel, one director was always at the top of the wish list. From Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, to The Bridge on the River Kwai, to Lawrence of Arabia, to Doctor Zhivago, no one else did “big” like David Lean. Then, he made something called Ryan’s Daughter. I’ve never seen it and have no idea what it was about. But I do know that the critical panning it got was enough to make the big fella pack his swag, go home and not make a movie for almost 15 years. But when he decided that his self imposed exile was over, he came back in style, with A Passage to India.
It’s in between World Wars when Adela (Judy Davis) and Mrs Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) arrive in India to visit Ronny (Nigel Havers). Ronny is fiancé to Adela, son to Mrs Moore and magistrate to the English ruled Indian citizens. It’s a time when the locals are on the verge of revolt against the colonising English. The general consensus amongst Indians is that it’s only a matter of time before any English man or woman who comes to their country becomes an arrogant, entitled prick with no regard for the country or its culture. For men, this matter of time is estimated at two years. For women, six months.
Determined to discover the real India, and be gracious while they do it, Adela and Mrs Moore befriend local doctor, Aziz (Victor Banerjee). He is all at once very aware of the ill treatment his country is facing at the hands of the English, while also being completely enamored by them. Aziz is determined to impress his English friends, including the suave and progressive school superintendent, Richard Fielding (James Fox). An excursion lead to by Aziz to some ancient and sacred caves leads to a terrible incident and even more tension between the Indians and English.
Googling A Passage to India, there’s no shortage of stories about tensions on the set. Lean struggling to find his mojo after such a long break, actors and crew resenting his penchant for compensating for his insecurities with rage and aggression. But there’s nothing on screen in the finished product to suggest any of that. This is vintage David lean storytelling through gorgeous visuals and impeccable performances from his perfectly cast actors (except for the unfortunate casting of Alec Guinness in brown face as Godbole. 1984 isn’t nearly long enough ago for that to be justified in any way).
A wide shot of a train rolling across the horizon at dusk. The palpable tension as Adela encounters a marauding gang of monkeys in the secluded countryside. The loyalty of Richard Fielding to Aziz as the rest of his ex pat compatriots turn against him. David Lean is one of the few people who could take a possibly melodramatic piece of syrup, let its running time blow out to almost three hours, and still come out the other end with a gripping masterpiece that never outstays its welcome.
And if all of that isn’t enough to make you want to watch A Passage to India, what about this? It also includes two legends of 90s British sitcoms. Richard Wilson (AKA, Victor Meldrew from One Foot in the Grave) and Clive Swift (AKA, Richard Bucket from Keeping Up Appearances).