Monday, May 02, 2011

Passage to India Review

David Lean’s films are epics, which I would define as at least a half hour longer than they need to be. The plot and storyline meanders but if it’s a good plot, you’re in for a grand adventure. It’s like National Geographic meets Shakespeare. The films tell dramatic stories while taking you on a journey to an exotic place, whether it’s the deserts of Arabia, the jungles of Southeast Asia, or the frigid winters of Russia on the eve of revolution.

In this case of “A Passage to India,” it’s a story about the grandeur of India (circa 1928) and the racial prejudice, national loyalty and sexual repression that lurks underneath. At the start of the film, the plot centers on the bonding between the fiancée and the mother (known only as Mrs. Moore) of a stuffy colonial magistrate as they form similar anti-establishment attitudes. They both want to “see the real India” and they don’t approve of the insular attitudes of the whites towards the natives. A college professor is sympathetic to their cause and arranges a luncheon with an Indian colleague (Alec Guinness in brown face) of his as well as a local doctor. The doctor proposes they go on a trip to the caves where trouble happens. The doctor and the betrothed Mrs. Quested get separated from the group where something happens in the cave (we’re not shown what) and the doctor is accused of rape.

The interesting thing about Lean’s films are that they’re too big for any one character. By the third act, the film isn’t even really about Mrs. Moore, Mrs. Quested, or the stuffy magistrate but rather the bonds of trust between the doctor and the college professor trying to see that justice is served to him.

The “what happened in the cave” mystery is one of those “Was the top spinning or not?” moments that makes the audience engage with the material and ask questions. It points the way to some complex symbolism (I’ve gotten a whole new appreciation for the film after seeing explanations from various message boards) and shows the film really has a lot to say and wonderfully subtle ways of expressing them.

If I can level one criticism, there were characters in the film who were boorish and apathetic to the British-Indian inequality and a very few liberal-minded people and almost nothing in between. If Mrs. Moore had the ability to look at the situation and see this is wrong, why was her own son (you'd think they'd share some of the same values) so distanced from that viewpoint that he couldn't even fathom it? If Fielding had a rational awareness of racism, he seemed to be the only one in the club. When society got progressive enough to realize slavery was wrong, even the ones who owned slaves could fathom the other side's argument. It felt like in this film, Fielding and his two friends were just living amongst zombies.

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