Saturday, September 24, 2011

Ugly Stepsister

Well. I don't hate it. But I don't need to see it again either.

I was as surprised as Tracy that this isn't a Merchant Ivory (though it smacks of the style and plot and costuming and pacing and quality of actor and E.M. Forster source material and and and). Not at all relevant, in checking the Merchant Ivory connection (before Tracy posted--I wasn't doubting her), I learned that Ishiguro wrote the screenplay for The White Countess (one of the few MI films I've seen) which makes me incredibly curious as to why exactly he allowed Alex Garland anywhere near Never Let Me Go because, as much as I appreciate 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go was a d.i.s.a.s.t.e.r. But, back to this film: I've also never seen a full David Lean film (I saw most-ish of Doctor Zhivago). Anyway, also surprisingly, I've not read any Forster. None.

So, I came to the film without any source material and I think I'd rather have read the book. I can't compare it to the book but I have the feeling that the book is more complete and less frustrating in what is left out (why Adela cracks in the cave)--although I have no doubt a complete explanation is also lacking in the book, I think the book must provide a more cohesive narrative beyond the "we're going to leave this part out" approach of the film. I *think.* Perhaps I'm wrong--Tracy have you read this one?

The film was gorgeous--especially on BluRay--and well acted but problematic in its representation of race and culture. There are nods to the fact that the Brits are being racist idiots in their interactions with the Indians (the Indian women saying they understand the English woman when she asks for a translation) but as these interactions aren't explored further the Indians are left as a sideshow like a circus elephant, gorgeously bedecked, performing a trick; we clap and move on as if it were an anomaly and not the product of actual intelligence or hard work on the elephant's part (perhaps, though acknowledging the [white] trainer). And, yes, I used the elephant on purpose because of the pretty creature used to carry the ladies to the caves. But, in a film that is supposedly ALL ABOUT the Brits being complete twits in their subjugation of the Indians, the subjugation of the Indians by the film is incredibly problematic. The film does what the film says not to do--the film, in a way, is being Adela while saying it's Mrs. Moore.

The book's opinion is equally problematic. First it praises Lean's past films: "David Lean's final film finds him just as obsessed with working with the widescreen tableau that defined Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Doctor Zhivago, but A Passage to India (admittedly not shot in 'Scope) is clearly more a movie of ideas than a movie of spectacle." So . . . .  Lean's other movies were good, this one seems similar (but not done in the same way) but it's different. That tells me I should watch one of those other films rather than this one. And then the book does EXACTLY what I told my freshman composition students NOT to do not fifteen minutes before typing this (no joke): "the film by necessity loses some of the internalized thrust of the multi-perspective novel, and therefore misses some of the nuance of its characters' various motivations. Additionally, A Passage to India sometimes comes across as a story of mystery and vague sexual hysteria rather than a biting adieu to British colonialism." So . . . . we have to apologize for the movie before we can talk about why we should watch it? Not a good sign. And then we have more praise for Lean and the book says Lean's work can overcome the film's shortcomings. Um, NO! The film's shortcomings ARE Lean's work. And then we have some plot summary and ANOTHER APOLOGY about the "not as forceful or thought provoking a conclusion as it could (or should) have been."

It seems we should watch this film because David Lean directed some films the book thinks genius and this is the last one he directed before he died. Seriously, there isn't one bit of absolute praise of this film. Passage is like the homely sister of his earlier films; the one who has to be invited to the party too so mom will let the better looking siblings go out. By the way, the supposedly more comely siblings included by book are: Brief Encounter, Great Expectations, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago, which puts exactly half of his eligible work as a director in this book.

Tracy, I know you've seen this one before--did it hold up?


  1. YES! It is Adela though it pretends to be Mrs. Moore. Genius.

    As I recall, though it's been years since I read the novel, the incident in the Caves is similarly elided, but it's more a marker of the impossibility of representing intense experience, so Adela casts it as rape because, being British, she doesn't have the language or the emotional maturity to process or internalize an intense emotional experience in any other way. I think (and again I'm straying into psychobiography here) Forster was so disillusioned with the way gayness/sexual freedom seemed incompatible with British identity that in the name of critiquing British-ness he ends up making Indianness a cartoon. A similar thing happened with Italian-ness in A Room with a View, but since that was a more traditional love plot, I didn't find it as problematic.

    Really, seeing this just makes me want to watch a MI Forster adaptation and/or read Howards End.

  2. The autobiographical info adds a lot here--I just wish that were made obvious in the film without the extra information. The movie doesn't work so well if you don't know about the author's sexual orientation and that's a problem. I've not seen Room but it's on the list so I suppose I will at some point. That's the only MI on the list, btw.

  3. What? I'm shocked that we won't get to watch Howards End and Remains of the Day. A pity, on a list that persists in including Performance and The Cow.