Birthday Girls: Judy Davis
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1984 Best Actress Oscar to Sally Field for Places in the Heart)
Why I Went Back: Happy birthday, Judy! From one Davis to another. No time to write a proper retrospective for a while, but surely at least a performance review is in order.
The Performance: It's been at least ten years since the first time I saw A Passage to India, during which time I have come to like the movie even less but Davis's performance appreciably more. My basic grudge against the film, not atypical in my experience of Lean's second career in the cinéma du globetrotter, is that the impressive scale and manicured mise-en-scène, however enticing in themselves, nonetheless detract from any sense of a storytelling point of view. Lean's camera barely attempts any empathetic or psychological closeness with his characters. It's all about getting the shot, and not enough about who's in the shot, and what they're doing there. No wonder, then, that Davis struggled to make any impression on me during my initial experience of the movie.
I still think she could have performed more vividly as the ambivalent, eventually hysterical, ultimately humiliated Adela Quested. Also, as much as I try not to mar my moviegoing by projecting my accumulated, telltale impressions of the actors' private personas, it's hard to look at the drawn, somewhat stern, "I wish I were anywhere but here" look that frequently occupies Davis's face and not make a connection to her purported "difficulty" and to her habit, even early in her career, of expressing her disaffection with anything prim, conventional, or wrong-headed in her movies. Knowing what we do (or think we do) about Davis, I would lay down money that she found A Passage to India to be annoyingly postcardish, emotionally remote, and politically dubious. Maybe I just wish she did, so that I could have the honor of agreeing with her.
But on this go-round, I saw something more in Davis's Adela than a sharp but inexperienced actress trying to make sense of an underwritten role in an only fitfully intelligent movie. As early as the first scene, as Adela books her passage on a steamer bound for India and spies a framed drawing of the Malabar Caves on the agent's wall, she wordlessly but unmistakably implies that Adela already has a neurotic fixation, a complex of attraction and revulsion with respect to the idea of the caves, and to India as a whole. Davis refuses to give a showy performance, despite the plummy overacting happening on almost every side of her, which is almost certainly why I underrated her work as a younger viewer and why she was barely a factor in the awards-season circuit until this borderline-surprise nomination. Watchful but undemonstrative, palpably judgmental but unforthcoming with the lion's share of her private verdicts, Davis turns Adela into the crypt-keeper of her own sheltered, contradictory, and highly susceptible feelings. Moreover, she outwits the garish literalism of so much of the movie by refusing to open Adela up by the endeven after the courtroom sequence, which all but invites the actress to release, lavishly and masochistically, whatever she's been bottling up. What does come through, as Adela shivers, cries, and somnambulistically drifts out of the courthouse, is that she's paying a tremendous toll not just for a false allegation and a political treachery but for some inward, guilt-saturated structure of desire that she's never disclosed to anyone, and may only have glimpsed for the first time herself, up there in the witness box.
Davis's Adelawan and compromised, lacerated by cactus needles in her mad flight out of the caves but just as clearly abraded by her immature sexuality and her huffy superiority to colonial ideologies with which she's nonetheless complicitis a kind of walking victim of the imperial vampire. Her unhistrionic retentiveness, a quality I don't exactly associate with this customarily carnivorous, take-no-prisoners actress, could absolutely accommodate some more nuances and illuminations. Frequently pushed to the background, limited to silent reactions even in some of her biggest scenes (including a paranoid, almost campy confrontation with an overgrown Indian ruin and the excitable, Aguirre-style monkeys who live there), Davis imbues reservoirs of mystery and disquiet into some of her shots but barely seems to try in others. A final coda in which she reads a letter from Dr. Aziz is a total wash, and I'm sure she'd have preferred a film that took a lot more risks with Adela, or at least avoided such obvious whiffs as offering two, nearly identical sequences in the real-time and flashback versions of the much-debated altercation in the Caves.
Not unusually in this year's roster of Best Actress nominees, by giving the smartest and most dignified performance that the material allows, Davis effaces her own talents more than a sharper filming of the same story would have necessitated, and truth be told, she isn't always sterling in the moments where some freer rein is possible. But not only is she not just treading water near the center of the film, as I once believed, she's almost single-handedly responsible for whatever provisions of mystique and perversity this flat, scenic, and oddly jaunty Passage to India has retained. Less, in her case, is mercifully more.