This movie is so David Lean-y. All striking vistas and cast of thousands and mannered, brutal conversation. That is not a complaint; Lawrence of Arabia is my favorite film.

As E. M. Forster novels go, A Passage to India is one of the good ones. That is: you don’t want to hit everyone in the face, and even those you do sometimes make good. (In Howards End, everyone needs to be hit in the face constantly, though in Where Angels Fear to Tread it’s just most of them most of the time.)

Miss Adela Quested (Judy Davis) goes to India with her prospective mother-in-law Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) in order to find out if she actually wants to marry Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers), a fairly senior civil servant. Both women are disconcerted by the machinery of empire, and in an attempt to correct what they see as a lack of feeling on the part of the British presence in India, they arrange to go on an expedition to some remarkable caves with an English professor, Mr. Fielding (James Fox), a Muslim medical man, Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee), and a Hindu man of letters, Professor Godbole (Alec Guinness). There is then an incident, and the remainder of the film is an object lesson in how the mills of empire grind.

The adaptation is close, careful, and admirable. Some of Forster’s incisive awareness of how people work is lost, of course, as you can’t see into their heads. Otherwise, as you expect from David Lean, the movie, particularly in exteriors, looks splendid. The costumer managed to make Miss Davis, a lovely woman, appear plausibly plain and awkward. Of the cast, Dame Peggy is particularly excellent as Mrs. Moore, who is too old to have any patience with the pettiness of youth or of imperialism. There is a hint of over-acting from Mr. Banerjee, but his rôle involves the most acute drama, so perhaps this is to be expected.

I think, in a way, this was perhaps not the right film for David Lean to make. He treats it in the same way he treated T. E. Lawrence or a foolish Russian doctor a single camp on the Burma railway–a vast disaster through the lens of a few unhappy men. And that is not a wrong way to read A Passage to India. It easily becomes the tragedy of the Raj, because of course it is the tragedy of the Raj, but Forster, as always, is doing something both less and more universal than that. So I’ll dock a point.

Stray notes:

  • Roshan Seth was young once–did you know? And Art Malik is positively adolescent in this film.
  • Nigel Havers, though a classic funny-but-posh-looking Englishman, is too thin and too good-looking for Ronny.
  • I think they changed Fielding’s Christian name from “Cyril” to “Richard,” and I wonder why.

Director: David Lean
Rating: PG
Length: 164 min.
Score: 4/5.