David Lean’s A Passage to India is as close a rendering of E.M. Forster’s famous last novel into film as anyone could hope for. It was obviously a labor of love: Lean, now 76, wrote the screenplay, directed and edited the film. It is his first in 14 years, after a distinguished career that has included Brief Encounter and Lawrence of Arabia. Despite the respect Lean has for Forster’s work, and his own superb craftsmanship, A Passage to India never achieves the intimacy of the book. That is less a criticism of Lean’s work than an acknowledgment of the extraordinary difficulty of turning great novels into equally great films.
Set in the India of the 1920s during the first rumblings of dissent over British rule, Forster’s almost plotless book con-
cerns itself superficially with a clash between two cultures. But its deeper subject is the lack of intimacy between people regardless of their easily labelled differences. That is what moves Mrs. Moore (Dame Peggy Ashcroft) to comment offhandedly yet fearfully after echoes in the Marabar caves frighten her, “We are passing figures in a godless universe.” Within the oppressive, seductive and alien terrain, Mrs. Moore, an elderly, wise and openminded woman, discovers the strangeness of ordinary life itself. In A Passage to India people do not connect, especially when they most want to.
Mrs. Moore has come to India to visit her son, Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers), along with his fiancée, Miss Quested (Judy Davis), a nervous virgin. Neither of the two women is happy with Ronny’s English insularity or that of the British contingent which has snobbishly retreated to its club. Both Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested want to embrace the new culture, and they are anxious for adventure. On a moonlit night Mrs. Moore meets an Indian doctor, Aziz (Victor Banerjee), in a mosque. He tells her that the shimmering river outside its window carries crocodiles and, occasionally, floating dead bodies. Startled, Mrs. Moore declares, “What a terrible river,” and then, in an awed afterthought, “What a wonderful river.” What Lean catches assiduously in A
Passage to India is Forster’s perception of the terror behind all intense beauty.
The sexually repressed Miss Quested finds those two opposites at a temple overgrown with vines where erotic sculptures cavort before her eyes and
vicious monkeys chase her away. Later, during the expedition to the Marabar caves, alone in the cavern of darkness, something happens to cause her to accuse the benign Aziz of attempted rape. The trial that follows sends Mrs. Moore back to England, alienates Aziz’s friend Fielding (James Fox) from the bloodthirsty English and becomes a political cause for the Indians as well. The aftermath succeeds in separating, by an even wider gulf, those who would be friends.
At 163 minutes, A Passage to India is too long: Lean cannot maintain the same quiet momentum as Forster did with his words. But as with all his films, it is lovely to watch, and the performances, especially Ashcroft’s as the delightful Mrs. Moore, are delicately calibrated. Most memorable of all is Alec Guinness’s miniature portrait of Godbole, the serene philosopher who believes in the inexorable nature of destiny and reincarnation. Surely no other actor alive could make such high comic art out of peeling a banana as Guinness does in one scene. Like the novel, Lean’s meditative, graceful film laments and marvels at the mysteries of human behavior. His camera can never move as close to the characters as Forster’s pen, but his film does move near and patiently enough to evoke Forster’s ironic elegy—not for how things once were, but for how, it seems, they will always be. -LAWRENCE O’TOOLE
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