E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India deals with Britain’s ignominious behavior toward Indians during the Raj by using a relationship between sexually repressed Adela Quested and a felicitous Indian doctor named Aziz. On her first trip to India, Quested’s eager to “know” the Indians, whom the English have cruelly made servile, so she befriends Aziz who extends amicability by offering to take her sightseeing to the cryptic Marabar Caves. Aziz isn’t aware of Quested’s burgeoning obsession with sex—though he’s anxious about her signals breaching insistent separation between cultures—so when Quested, alone in the caves, loses control of her heated flashes, precipitated not only by a foreplay sequence during which she comes across some erotic stone sculpture but also by the thrusting echoes of his voice, he has no idea of her sexsteria and is rightly perplexed when he’s arrested for attempted rape. Since Aziz didn’t violate her, the audience is left to wonder if Quested got spooked in the caves like Mrs. Moore or, more likely, had a spontaneous orgasm. If Quested had been terrified by anything other than her wet panties, would she have acquiesced to the guilty-until-proven-innocent imperialism? How else could she explain to the pompous dolts the suddenly rupturing hots for Aziz? D.H. Lawrence wrote about Forster as “a man of strong soul (who) has too much honour for the other body—man or woman—to use it as a means of masturbation. So he remains neutral, inactive.” Because we know more about Forster than Lawrence might have, this description isn’t altogether true: Forster’s Maurice confirms he knew about the sudden intensity of emissions of the virginal and this might put him a step ahead of Lawrence in the breakthrough as a priest of sex. But it’s apt for Forster the genteel writer and David Lean as director, who once asked his producer, “What did happen in the caves?” In Lean’s cautious hands, the occurrence stays faithful to Forester’s lack of explicitness while at the same time adding a flow of water from an elephant’s cool down bath to confirm the rush of wetness. If India is pretty slender—a pygmy story full of “pathos-is-the-highest-quality-in-art” empty pauses, guesses, traps and ricochets of irony—all the foreshadowing glances, voices, the snippy reproaches are better acted than in the inflated Ryans Daughter. Judy Davis elocutes Quested with the edge of Glenda Jackson as a near-ringer for Lee Grant. She facially delivers the tidal wave of eruptous unexpectus with the rarest of dignity. As the beloved Mrs. Moore, Dame Peggy Ashcroft’s seasoned grace is the movie’s warmest spot. Doing the conscience of England, James Fox manages to use his bleached hair, swaying arms and unperturbed manner to make his Fielding the only Englishmen to not only do right by the Indians but also Mrs. Moore. (The movie’s one moving, spiritual moment comes when Aziz, who saw in Mrs. Moore the kindest of God’s creatures, realizes “she lives!” through Field.) For my taste, and despite commiseration for his ever-increasing anxieties, Victor Banerjee’s Aziz is just too on the brink of every emotion. And what can we make of Maurice Jarre reprising the upchuck of Ryan’s Daughter’s theme into this one? When originally released, I carped about so small a tale as A Passage to India got in the way of Lean’s specialty—there simply wasn’t enough scale to impersonalize; on reappraisal, Lean’s swan song (which he also adapted and edited) seems characteristically appropriate. Based on his own fear of sex, he’d never explicate the eruption of orgasm and, due to his polished civility, he’d have never given us the more damning view of what the British were really like in India. For that, The Jewel in the Crown is recommended.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2005 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.