Viewer Guide: A Passage to India and The Young Victoria

May 24, 2019 | Richard Peña


This week’s classic is A Passage to India, the 1984 film adaptation of the acclaimed novel by E.M. Forster, directed by David Lean.

Set in the early-1920s, A Passage to India opens with Adela Quested doing just that—booking a steamship passage to India. Played by Judy Davis, Adela is an intrepid but naïve young school teacher embarking on her first trip out of England, accompanied by her kindly but independent-minded future mother in law Mrs. Moore, played by Peggy Ashcroft. For Adela, this is a true voyage of discovery—eager to see the “real” India, as well as determined to resolve her romantic feelings about her fiancé Ronny Heaslop, a magistrate in the fictional city of Chandrapore played by Nigel Havers. But once Adela and Mrs. Moore arrive in the posh but segregated world of British colonial India, it’s as if they were still in England—only warmer. Furthermore, both women are disturbed by the callous racism they observe in Ronny and the other self-appointed English “elites.” After Mrs. Moore’s chance meeting with Dr. Aziz, played by Victor Banerjee, and with the help of city’s British college headmaster Richard Fielding, played by James Fox, Adela and Mrs. Moore finally escape their restricted confines to join Dr. Aziz on a picnic expedition to the Marabar Caves, a popular tourist destination some distance away. But at the caves, both Adela and Mrs. Moore experience a mystical encounter with the “real” India that neither are prepared for, setting the stage for a culture clash that shatters the artificial tranquility of Chandrapore’s British Imperialism.

Also featured is Alec Guinness—a veteran of several David Lean films—returning in a supporting role as the Hindu scholar Professor Godbole. The rousing score is by Lean stalwart Maurice Jarre.

A Passage to India marked the long-awaited return of director David Lean after a 14 year absence from the movies. His name synonymous with big-budget epics epitomized by such classics as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, Lean had been badly stung in 1970 by the negative critical reaction to his last film, Ryan’s Daughter, and had retreated from filmmaking in a crisis of self-doubt. After three years developing a new version of The Mutiny on the Bounty with Mel Gibson, before being forced off the project, Lean jumped at the chance to adapt E.M. Forster’s final literary masterpiece after a regime change at Forster’s estate finally made the film rights available. Initially working from a Forster-approved 1957 theatrical adaptation, Lean traveled to New Delhi to revise the script himself in order to open up the story and showcase the spectacular Indian locations. Lean’s first choice to play Fielding was Peter O’Toole, and for Mrs. Moore, he originally approached his 1945 Brief Encounter star Celia Johnson, but Johnson declined and actually died before the film was released. Peggy Ashcroft initially resisted taking the role, telling Lean she was too old, especially after just wrapping Indian location shooting on the 14-episode TV series The Jewel in the Crown—but Lean wouldn’t take no for an answer. For the critical role of Dr. Aziz, Lean cast Indian actor Victor Banerjee at the suggestion of acclaimed director Satyajit Ray, who years before had also made a rejected bid to adapt Forster’s novel for the screen. A notoriously exacting taskmaster, Lean’s on-set dynamic with Judy Davis reportedly grew quite prickly, but Davis was in good company; despite being a veteran of several Lean films, Lean’s relationship with Alec Guinness also deteriorated, especially when Guinness discovered that most of his was performance wound up on the cutting room floor.

Greeted with rave reviews upon its release and honored with eleven Oscar nominations—with wins for Peggy Ashcroft and composer Maurice Jarre— A Passage to India proved to be a triumphant comeback for Lean. But despite his rejuvenated career plans to direct Empire of the Sun, as well as an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, Lean died of throat cancer in 1991 at the age of 83, making A Passage to India his final film.


This week’s indie is The Young Victoria, the 2009 historical drama written by Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée.

After a long Hollywood history of seemingly countless films about the kings and queens of the Tudor dynasty, in recent years audience taste for movies about Britain’s Royals has decidedly shifted to the more recent past, with both Queen Elizabeth II and Queen Victoria now among the new favorites for dramatization. With Victoria’s entire 63 year reign obviously being far too epic for a single theatrical film, The Young Victoria opts to keep the focus on the behind the scenes power struggle of her teenage years before her ascension to the throne, as well as her arranged romance with Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. As portrayed by Emily Blunt, the future queen is a self-possessed young lady with her own ideas on how she wants to do things, qualities that serve the underage princess well in navigating the machinations of her mother, the Duchess of Kent, played by Miranda Richardson. Spurred on by the designs of her ambitious paramour Sir John Conroy, played by Mark Strong, the Duchess schemes to reign in Victoria’s place as “regent.” Beyond the seeming treachery of her inner family, Victoria must also contend with the plans of her uncle, King Leopold of Belgium, who hopes to devise a royal match that will strengthen his country’s alliance with England. As fate would have it, Leopold’s hand-picked candidate arrives at Buckingham Palace in the form of his handsome nephew Prince Albert, played by Rupert Friend. And in a rare instance of an arranged match that actually blooms into a romance, Victoria and Albert embark on a gradual courtship that ultimately permits them to make their own rules on both a political and personal level.

Also featured in supporting roles are Paul Bettany as Lord Melbourne, the first prime minister of Victoria’s reign, along with Jim Broadbent as King William IV and Harriet Walter as Queen Adelaide.

Although the image of the senior Queen Victoria still looms large around the world—cinematically re-enforced in 1997 by Judi Dench’s memorable screen portrayal of her in MRS. BROWN—Victoria’s early life had not been as extensively dramatized at the time of The Young Victoria’s release in 2009. Covering much the same time period that is recounted in greater detail in the ongoing mini-series Victoria airing on PBS Masterpiece, the original idea for The Young Victoria actually originated with a member of today’s royal family: Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, who had already co-written two books on Victoria, and had long felt there were echoes of Victoria and Albert’s story in her own marriage to Victoria’s great-great-great-grandson, Prince Andrew. Ferguson joined forces with producer Graham King, and King recruited another longtime producing partner to join the project—Martin Scorsese. Before Downton Abbey became a six year fulltime commitment, Julian Fellowes wrote the screenplay, striving for as much historical accuracy as possible, but occasionally taking factual liberties for dramatic effect. For example, while Prince Albert did attempt to shield Victoria during the 1840 assassination attempt, he was not actually injured during the incident. Likewise, actor Paul Bettany was at least two decades too young to accurately portray Victoria’s first prime minister, the wizened veteran politician Lord Melbourne. Much-honored costume designer Sandy Powell took home the Oscar that year for her sumptuous period costumes. Director Jean-Marc Vallée would go on to work on a variety of non-royal films, including Dallas Buyers Club and the hit HBO series Big Little Lies.



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