Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Passage to India

(Movie Review)

The reason I ended up watching this movie was somewhat due to the poverty of selection. (As a lot of my movie choices are.)
I was in the University library, looking over their limited movie selection. I knew I would be watching the movie on my small computer screen, so I didn't want anything with spectacular action sequences that would have been wasted on my small monitor. And I didn't want anything that was subtitled, because I didn't want to have to squint to read subtitles on the screen. I just wanted a nice, thoughtful little movie that I could enjoy over a cup of coffee. And hopefully something that would make me think a little bit.

This seemed to fit the bill. The DVD cover box describes it as:
[Enter a world where cultures clash so violently that an entire country could split at any moment. Nominated for eleven Academy Awards and winner of two, A Passage to India is a "wonderfully provocative tale full of vivid characters, all played to perfection" (the New York Times.)]

Well, so far so good. Sounds like an interesting story about culture clashes. I kept reading.

[When liberal-minded English ladies Mrs. Moore and Adela Quested arrive in India, they're shocked by the extreme racial prejudice that exists there. Fortunately, kind Dr. Aziz rises above the intolerance and guides the women on a splendid tour of the mysterious Marabar caves. But the outing turns tragic when Adela suddenly comes running from one of the caves--scratched, bleeding and terribly frightened. News of the incident quickly spreads across the whole of India...igniting a powder keg of tension just waiting to explode. "A rich tapestry woven of the clash between two cultures" (Newsweek), A Passage to India is supreme entertainment and a visual wonder that is truly spellbinding.]

It sounded like "To Kill a Mockingbird" set in colonial India--some good courtroom drama scenes, a bit of political tension--sounded good to me. Plus it had won lots of awards. Plus it was released in 1984, so it was a relatively recent film (by my standards) so it should have a relatively modern sense of pace and timing.

At least that's what I thought before watching it.

Now before I go into the review, I have a small confession to make: I have not read the novel on which this film is based. (Although it is on my list of "books to read someday.")
One of the rules I generally try to follow is to always read the book first before seeing the film (especially with the classics.)
...But, like a lot of rules I set for myself, I break this one all the time. And here is a case in point. I was in the mood to relax with a DVD, and I decided not to get puritanical about the fact that I hadn't read the book.
Besides, I have so many books on my list, and I'm such a slow reader, that it will probably be years before I ever get around to reading the book. By which time I'll have had plenty of time to forget the movie, and the plot can still seem new and fresh to me.

I do feel slightly unqualified to review this movie without having read the book first, but people do say that a good film should be able to stand on its own merits whether you've read the book or not. So I guess that's the criteria I'll have to judge this from. No doubt I would have had a different perspective if I had read the book first, but oh well.

My biggest criticism of this movie is that it takes forever to get to its point. The incident in the caves (the part where the movie actually develops some sort of plot) doesn't take place until 1 hour 25 minutes into the movie.

Up until then, nothing really happens. Characters are introduced, characters meet each other, characters make small talk with each other, characters go on bike rides and look around India, characters go to a tea party, et cetera.
It was kind of interesting for the first half hour. But an hour and a half of this was way too long. By the time the plot actually got started, I had given up on the movie.

Then to make things even worse, the court room drama, the key part of the movie that could have been really interesting, was either very poorly written, or very poorly edited. Most of the trial happened off-screen, and the audience was just brought up to speed by passing references.

For example, much is made of the fact that the political lawyer Amidullah comes to defend the case, but he's given very little screen time and almost no lines when he finally arrives.

In another case, the judge warns the defence team that yesterday's behaviour will not be tolerated again. But the behaviour itself was never shown on screen, we just get the judges reaction to it.

I suspect what happened here is that someone was trying to be too faithful to the structure of the book. The book may have included long passages describing characters and setting the scene before the real plot got underway. And in a well written book, you can get away with that.

But in a movie you need to pack your punches differently. You need to get the story off to a faster start, and then focus on the moments which allow for dramatic tension.

But that's just my opinion. Given how critical acclaimed this movie was (W) and how many awards it was nominated for (W) perhaps I'm just an uncultured philistine. But I felt like it took what could have been a very interesting story, and bored me with it.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky - Fear of Democracy


Whisky Prajer said...

It's probably been 20 years since I saw this movie, but I can recall having my patience tested by it. I read the book a year or two later, and was completely blown away. It probably helped that I was enduring a romance with a similar arc, but the central issue of 'mystery vs. muddle' really took hold of me as I read.

There is a scene in the movie, however, that is not in the book, which I thought was brilliant. Just a footnote for you, 'cos I hope you'll still give the book a try.

Joel said...

So you read the book after having seen the movie as well, huh? And it didn't spoil the reading of the book for you then?

Rest assured, it is on my list of books to read someday. Of course my reading list is so long, and my reading pace is so slow, that it could well be a few years before I get around to it.

Whisky Prajer said...

The experience didn't spoil it at all, because Forster really lets you inside the heads of the principle characters. I had a difficult time shaking the image of Alec Guinness as Godbole, however.

Joel said...

yeah, that was an interesting choice of casting, wasn't it?

I didn't even recognize him. I knew from the DVD box that he was supposed to be in the movie somewhere, and I kept asking, "Now when is Alec Guinness going to show up?" It wasn't until after the movie finished and I went to wikipedia that I realized what his role had been.