Monday, May 14, 2012

Judy Davis in A Passage to India

Judy Davis received her first Oscar nomination for playing Ms. Adela Quested, the heroine of the movie based on E.M. Forster's novel, A Passage to India. It's very hard to find out how much chance Judy had on Oscar night. Although her second loss was a very unexpected (and ugly; don't even TRY to get me started on it, I'm furious just thinking about it) one because she almost swept the critics' awards, the first time she wasn't much of a front-runner. I presume the fact that Peggy Aschcroft conteded in supporting enabled Judy to get the Best Actress nomination. Based on the overall success of the movie among Academy members and the fact that Judy was the only Oscarless actress of the bunch must have helped her become second. 

It's kind of stunning to me how many people seem to hate A Passage to India. Although it's not on the same level as Amadeus or The Killing Fields, it's a very proper movie by an aging David Lean. It's not as much of an epic as Lawrence of Arabia or The Bridge on the River Kwai but I see the fingerprints of Lean. It absolutely deserved both Oscars it won. Peggy Aschcroft gives a wonderful supporting performance as Mrs. Moore (a much better one than I remembered). She's so full of kindness, good spirits and decency. I was most definitely impressed by her, just like Maurice Jarre's score (which is once again not as famous and popular as his previous co-operations with Lean). That being said, this film earned its Best Picture nomination way more than Places in the Heart. I saw that Lean had something to say with this movie besides entertaining the audience. 

David Lean was, I presume, a very strong personality very much like Judy Davis with whom he so famously clashed with during the shooting of A Passage to India. Judy is said to be a difficult actress to work with (oh the gossip about her part in River Phoenix's death is so annyoing), however, I feel that she's a consummate artist who doesn't stand in line for an Oscar win, who doesn't give a shit about becoming a star or doing self-campaigning. I see her as a woman of strong morals and an actress of immense, beautiful talent. Besides Kathy Bates, I feel that she's the most unique and unusual actress working today. In each and every part of hers she shows us an amazing, inexplicable quality that makes her performances wonderfully chaotic and brilliant. 

After her famous role in My Brilliant Career, it really was A Passage to India that much deservedly shot Judy to world fame. The part of Miss Quested fits Judy like a glove and she used every opportunity to shine but not according to Hollywood's expectations but on her own terms. Adela is a neurotic, troubled woman that Judy specialises in playing. On the surface, Adela is one of the most shallowly written and boring characters of all time. However, beneath there are depth that Judy shows us and reveals some hidden layers in this seemingly one-dimensional woman. While it's true that the movie and the story limit her greatness to an extent and don't give her enough time to completely build up this character, Judy does her very best with Adela. However, Judy wants to take her time with this character and yet the movie sometimes cuts short her efforts. A flower needs some time to blossom and that's very much true to Judy Davis.

What makes this movie so vibrating and unusual is most definitely Judy's presence. She's surrounded by old-fashioned English actors and a seemingly conservative director (in terms of filmmaking) and there's Judy with her radiant, modern, progressive and innovative presence, which refuses to be just "another brick in the wall". In a 19th century Hungarian drama, The Tragedy of Man, there's a scene where in the distant future, Michelangelo is a carpenter whose punished for making special carvings for chairs and not keeping himself to the forms according to which he's expceted to create. Judy Davis does the same: while people around him just do their jobs as they are expected to, Judy wants to create something special and as a result, she becomes far and away the most special part of her movie. 

I suppose this is why she had a feud with David Lean who visibly doesn't give a shit about her if you see the movie carefully. Of course, it's easier for Judy to give a performance that leaves you shitless if she works with someone like Woody Allen who's so obviously in love with her, however, giving a great performance with less help might even be a greater feat (though not that directly). 

What I admire about this performance is how mysterious Judy makes Ms. Quested. The only thing we get to know about her background is that she was brought up to tell thee truth. We don't even know her intentions or thoughts, we just get some insight into her head and then she closes it. Those occasional moments are when we see real brilliance and these somewhat moody changes are what make her work here so special. 

I admittedly have a soft spot for movie breakdowns, especially from actresses and next to Great Glenn, Judy is my favorite actress to watch break down in front of a camera. Her scene in the cave is so haunting and disturbing just because of that. The same goes for her amazing questioning at the court. The whole scene is uncomfortable and hard to watch despite the fact that nothing extraordinary happens. Judy so wonderfully portrays neurotic women that you get as nervous as the character does. And she does so without many juicy lines and great monologues. I don't even dare to imagine what would have happened had she had a more carefully written, baitier part. Fireworks, for sure. And I suppose the lack of "huge" scenes and a great Oscar clip was what cost Judy this Oscar. 

But seriously, who cares about Oscar clip when you see Judy display such a wide range on the screen. She shows so many facets of this woman: the curious Adela, the disturbed Adela, the unhappy Adela and so on. It's fantastic to experience all of these stages of the character. Unlike Sally Field in Places in the Heart, Judy was able to develop her character without much help from the screenplay (It indeed takes a very special actress to be able to do so and who's special if not Judy Davis). Judy gives the sort of  performance I expected from Glenda Jackson in Sunday Bloody Sunday: quiet but really bursting with brutal, hidden emotions. 

I can conclude that Judy Davis gives a wonderful, unforgettable performance as Adela Quested. She transforms her movie into something really special and exctining with her radiant presence and amazing talent. She staunchly keeps herself to her very own way and she never surrenders to the temptations of going the shorter, easier way just like the rest of the movie does. Although the movie doesn't give her much time or even credit (which is the reason why she doesn't leave you breathless like she does in Husbands and Wives), she's the one who leaves the strongest impression on the viewers haunting them for a long time after the credits roll. 

What do you think?


Fritz said...

I really enjoy this movie and Peggy is fantastic.

mrripley said...

People this year is awful but point to 5 other nominees in 85 who could've taken their places i can think of kathleen turner,madeleine potter,meryl streep,anne bacroft and maybe geneveive bujold,i feel their are far worse years inc 1989,1991,1994,2003,2009 and this year too.

Louis Morgan said...

Seems she might win.

dinasztie said...


I have four alternates for this year but I'll only reveal them in the end. :)

IMO, 1989 is a killer year.

mrripley said...

ooooh goody.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you that Judy was wonderful and unforgettable. With Peggy Ashcroft walking away with the movie, not many people give Judy the credit she deserves.


Mick said...

One of the most haunting (and underrated!) performances ever nominated for an Oscar. She moves through the film as though she's made of piano wire. Even in scenes like their conversation by the little pool, one can just feel that there's something dreadful happening to her on the inside. The extraordinary longing and suppression of emotion is heartbreaking, and that scene in the cave is just sublime, when she becomes possessed by her intense sexual desire and suffocation (also one of the most incredible self-mutilation / masturbation scenes in cinema), where her eyes roll back into her head and she begins to quiver and touch herself, is breathtaking.. It's so unsettling to watch her emerge, with her body all ripped and torn, her mouth shaking, and those white, empty eyes. Spooky stuff, and another Davis masterpiece.