19. Judy Davis as Adela Quested in "A Passage to India" (1984)
Saturday, July 10, 2010
After a fourteen year hiatus from film, David Lean mustered up enough courage to direct what’d turn out to be his swan song, A Passage to India (1984). Based on EM Forster’s legendary novel, the film is, in my eyes, a perfect union of David Lean’s vast, epic directorial style and a sort of intimacy that allows us to analyze the skewed ethics of British imperialism. I’m baffled that Davis was even nominated – only the BSFC recognized her for this performance, while many other bodies gave Peggy Ashcroft lead honors for her role – but I’m glad the Academy had enough sense to nominate her. Here, she plays Adela Quested, an English woman who’s sexually repressed but doesn’t really know it. As Forster wrote her, Adela is a woman who, like Ashcroft’s Mrs. Moore, wants to experience the ‘real’ India. She’s looking for some sort of path away from the calm repression of her life in Britain, so she has some level of curiosity about Indian culture as a whole. Yet where Mrs. Moore’s interest seems genuine – she’s emotionally invested in learning about such a foreign culture – Adela’s seems well-intentioned but lacking in heart. Quite literally, she’s a woman who’s so stuck between two worlds that she isn’t really a part of either.
From the onset of the film, Davis establishes so subtly Adela as a sort of repressed character, a woman who’s looking for some way out, but she doesn’t give us full answers – we start to think that, just maybe, there’s something wrong with her and the way she views intimacy, but we don’t know exactly what that is. She’s beautiful by Western standards – she has a quiet, elegant sort of physicality. But there’s also something that’s a little off about her. Her eyes look sort of sleepy, her lips are a little shaky, her skin is pale – really, she’s hardly what Indians would consider beautiful. And so we get the feeling there’s something criminally wrong with her being in India; she doesn’t really fit.
As the film progresses, we see Adela in a few scenarios that further reveal her emotional – in particular, sexual – insecurities. One day, for example, she comes across these extremely erotic, buxom statues in this castle-like shrine; she’s a little perplexed by them, even intrigued, until a horde of monkeys (interestingly, creatures who are like savage forms of humans) emerges from the rocks and comes chasing after her. We realize that it’s her fear that’s really attacking her – all her emotional vulnerability concerning sex, intimacy is literally running toward her. But she can’t face it, probably because she doesn’t know how to – and suddenly, the root of Davis’ nervous energy is explained to us. There’s the idea that she sees India as a place that has so much deep-rooted eroticism altogether absent from prim British society; in this respect, India represents her first chance to live, to experience intimacy. Davis slowly reveals to us the root of Adela’s personal torture: she’s sexually repressed.
Adela’s emotional fisticuffs really climax, though, when she reaches the caves. Dr. Aziz offers to take Adela and Mrs. Moore on an expedition to the (fictional) Marabar Caves, in an effort to satisfy their curiosity to see the “real India”. On her way to the caves, Adela asks him about his wife, whether he loved her – and, for a moment, we realize that all her attraction to India may be personified in Dr. Aziz. Once he rebuffs her advances (if you could even call them that), though, Adela doesn’t know what to do. She enters the caves alone, feeling slightly rejected, and, in there, something comes over her – she panics. The caves represent to her everything that’s unexplainable about nature as a whole; it’s like a hole in the world. Any sorts of rules natural society is governed by, whether it’s in India or in Britain, are absent from the caves – they’re otherworldly. And so, while she’s in there, she abandons any rational modes of thought or morality – this is the first time in her life she’s without any rules to control her. She doesn’t know who or what to follow, so she’s lost, confused. Because she can’t rationalize her confusion, she rashly accuses Dr. Aziz of raping her. (I’ve always seen the accusation as her go-to, her way of trying to fit into the only world she ever really knew – that of the Britons around her.)
It’s as if there’s always an undercurrent of panicky, nervous tension running through Davis throughout the film, and that never really calms. She’s on edge. We can tell that, by the way she interacts with people, there’s always something so anxious about her – see the way Davis especially channels all her trembling, jumpy fear into her lips. Where other actresses use their eyes to emote a certain feeling, Davis uses her mouth – one quiver or curling of the mouth is enough to tell us the kind of woman Adela is. This quality makes her more exciting to watch, as an actress – at this point, we’re so interested in Davis’ quick, fast-paced approach to this character that we become more emotionally invested in Adela.
The ensuing trial after the episode in the caves is so well-played by Davis – we’ve gotten to know Adela so well by that point that we experience everything along with her. Davis, as a performer, has a way of always keeping us in touch with exactly what emotions Adela is battling against. How could anyone not despise Adela? She’s such a tragic character that she’s almost pathetic. More importantly, though, how can anyone not admire her courage? Her honesty is a sort of triumph, and we feel compelled to admire her for it when no one else really does. Neither David Lean nor Judy Davis tells us exactly how to feel about Adela, and it’s this emotional ambiguity that is mesmerizing. Davis gives us a sort of window into Adela’s psychology, but she never gives us direct answers – Adela is a woman who’s trying to rationalize her irrationality, trying to make sense of one of her most senseless acts. Some people comment that Lean’s auteristic style is what really hinders her performance – his vast scales don’t let us get to know her, or any character for that matter. But I disagree. Lean’s love for grand scales and big huge sceneries feeds in perfectly to Adela’s character trajectory – she’s dwarfed by what’s around her.