Passage to India, A (1984)

A Passage to India (1984), directed by David Lean.

A many-layered tale of 1920s India, when the British empire has passed it's peak and won't be running the country for much longer. Our threads:

Miss Adela Quested travels to India to see her fiance. The British are not supposed to mix with the Indians but she and the young man's mother are contrary and get to know some locals, including the poor Dr Aziz. One day, riding her bicycle alone, she encounters a ruined temple with erotic engravings of the sort young English girls are not supposed to see; in the shadows of the swaying bamboo leaves the figures almost seem to move... Wild monkeys (monsters from the Id!) chase her away.

Shortly thereafter Aziz takes them on an elaborate picnic outing to some famous caves. Adela becomes confused and distraught and rushes off the mountain, suffering injuries. Aziz is charged with attempted sexual assault. Later in a tense courtroom scene Adela struggles to remember, to understand, and to tell the truth.

We have the collision of Britain and India and the arrogance of the Brits. This borders on "message" but Maurice Jarre's oddly off-balance score keeps us guessing, and there are multiple ironies: when riding an elephant Aziz proudly recalls his Mogul ancestors, themselves conquerors of India. And British justice serves him well in the end.

We see the unlikeable colonial administrators abusing the locals, but even the kindly Adela and Mrs Moore cause an unusual amount of trouble, as if good intentions alone were not enough to cushion the clash of civilizations. And yet, in the end: forgiveness and reconciliation.

Finally, we have mysteries. Movies are good at the vivid and obvious, but the suggested and intimated are much more difficult. An ethereal wind is blowing Adela toward the Marabar Caves from the very first scene. Mrs Moore is recognized as an "old soul" and a sort of saint. Throughout the film her name is shouted in exaltation and as a cry for justice. Themes of fate and destiny can emerge from film if treated gently.

I don't see how you could do all that in less than 2 3/4 hours. It's never sluggish.

Lean's last film. He also wrote the final screenplay and did the editing.

I've liked Judy Davis ever since her first film. She's at the intersection of clever and plain and pretty, with a dangerous edge. James Fox, as a decent schoolteacher, is another favorite.

Available on Blu-ray with a rather good image. The commentary track is by one of the producers who grew up in India. It has details on locations and sets. More:

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