A Passage to India (1984) (mini-review++)

(If you’re curious, my review process. It’s also pasted at the end of this post. I don’t believe in Rotten Tomatoes. I just believe in me.)

(***all-purpose SPOILER ALERT*** there may be some in this review)

acting 7

directing 6

effects 8

editing 6

writing 8

SW SCORE: 35

3.5 out of 5 🐙

++

Dateline: early 1920s India.

Two British ladies, Adela Quested (Judy Davis) and her probable future mother-in-law, Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft), are visiting India to meet Mrs. Moore’s son and Adela’s probable fiancee, Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers) and finalize the marriage match. This setting is the height of British imperialism, so the white folks lord over the far more numerous indigenous people and they treat them like objects or pets. They certainly do not treat them like equals. Ronny buys into this idiotic supremacy. But he’s not painted as a two-dimensional bad guy. He does apologize for his actions and at least seems open to the possibility that the Indians might deserve better. Don’t get it twisted. He’s still a bigot, but this was 1920, so you gotta adjust for deflation. Adela seems to be open to believing or disbelieving this dominant narrative. Enter Mr. Turton (Richard Wilson). He’s Ronny’s boss, and he doesn’t buy that racist BS. It’s clear he is the noble center of the film and we see he is not prejudiced, self-effacing, smart and good natured. He immediately befriends an Indian doctor, Ronny, whose friendly and gregarious, but who also sadly adheres to the British system that unfairly puts him down. He has these lines which are both hilarious and friendly but also racially damaging:

“So no Miss Quested for Mr Fielding.”

“However, she is not beautiful, and she has practically no breasts.”

“For a magistrate, they may be sufficient.”

“For you, I’ll arrange a lady with breasts like Bombay mangoes!”

Ronny isn’t the only sunshine in the movie. Davis starts playing Adela as a sweet, open-minded woman. She is resolute and independent and soon nixes the marriage match with no uncertain terms:

“I finally decided we’re not going to be married.” 

Unfortunately, soon after we meet Turton, even in 1984, race issues were not handled well. For example, I knew Alec Guinness was in the movie, but I had to double-check to see who he was playing. He was in tan-face, for lack of a better word, to play a militantly Hindu Professor Godbole.

“If there is a slice of beef in the vicinity, he will certainly throw up.”

Prior to the major development in the film, the movie had a much lighter tone than I expected. I expected more of a Ghandi vibe, but I suppose that’s me coming into the film with my own prejudiced preconceptions. The scene where the tone starts to change from light to dark is tightly encompassed in one single bike ride. Adela pedals into the countryside on an idyllic ride and takes a small path that leads into the edge of the jungle. She starts to notice Indian religious statues, and they are of a rather different stripe than her British figures. Her tension rises, and she is eventually physically threatened and chased by the country’s fauna itself. Immediately afterwards, she restarts the engagement she canceled and her egalitarian outlook has dissipated.

At this point, the movie takes on a much darker tone. Ronny is accused of a terrible crime by Adela. At this point, there is nothing to indicate that Ronny could have committed this crime. We enter a courtroom battle that screams To Kill a Mockingbird. What happens next does not religiously track with that Harper Lee’s tragic ending. But it does involve the destruction and transformation of people, often for the worst. But it does shock, sadly, with its dollop of dignity and mercy.

All in all, the tonal shift in the middle of the film was too abrupt for me. I don’t think it was smooth storytelling. It took me out of the film. It was so sharp that it felt like two different films. The acting performances were solid, and the ending was unique, but this passage was not smooth going.

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(1) Shark Wrighter (SW) Score: Based on a sum of 5 sub-scores (acting, directing, writing/story, effects: cinematography &/or animation &/or effects, editing) with 1 being terrible and 10 being terrific.

(2) Octopuses (0-5 🐙, with 5 being fantastic and 0 being feces)

(3) Octopuses are my unquantifiable feeling…not that SW score is scientific…but this one is even less so

(4) ++ This optional section includes any incredibly *brilliant observations that don’t fit into simple quantitative slices like the scores and octopuses *(they are likely NOT brilliant)

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