Peggy Ashcroft as Mrs. Moore in A Passage to India
Best Supporting Actress at the 57th Annual Oscars (1984)
“My dear, life rarely gives us what we want at the moment we consider appropriate.”
Two women, Adela (Judy Davis) and Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) travel from England to India, where they expect to learn native customs and have a bit of adventure, but instead encounter the horrors of colonialism, rape allegations, and sooo many snotty white people.
There’s probably nobody that I’d rather take a passage to India with than Mrs. Moore. She heads there as the mother of the local magistrate, accompanying Helene, her potential future daughter-in-law. Helene is lucky, because Mrs. Moore is a great travel buddy: she’s up for exploring and experiencing the local culture, but she also knows her limits (claustrophobia and mornings, relatable). Unlike almost every other white person in India, she’s actually excited to engage and learn: she wants to, ya know, meet actual Indians, not hang at the stupid English club listening to God Save the Queen. She’s respectful when she enters a mosque, and she’s willing to climb atop of an elephant, despite her anxieties.
Mrs. Moore is a fairly collected individual, but make no mistake, she’s very troubled. In part, she’s perturbed by the nightmarish British regime, especially her odious son’s role in the whole thing. The white magistrates are constantly throwing these awful ceremonies where the locals have to feign fawning over them, and Mrs. Moore is so astute about the ridiculous awkwardness, giving us amazing scathing lines like, “The whole of this entertainment is an exercise in power and the subtle pleasures of personal superiority.” But Mrs. Moore’s problems are also more existential: she’s getting old, she’s going to die soon, and the world is terrible. What’s more universal than that?
Most of Peggy Ashcroft’s acting history is in theater, and her filmography is surprisingly short, so I was delighted by this restrained, impeccable performance. Mrs. Moore is supposed to be twice-widowed, and Ashcroft does an excellent job of giving her an air of having seen it all. She carries herself like someone who has buried two husbands. Ashcroft is so refined, even when she’s sweaty and appalled. We’ve talked about actors who leave it all on the floor, but that’s not Ashcroft, who holds back many of her emotions. I actually appreciate that: she gives Mrs. Moore a real dignity, even in the face of heartbreak and fear.
I also love that despite not being effusive, Ashcroft still radiates a warmth. At one point in the film, someone says of Mrs. Moore, “You have the most kind face of any English lady I’ve ever met,” and it’s so accurate. Mrs. Moore has a stiff upper lip, but Ashcroft still enables us to see her deeply enough that we have a lot of sympathy for her. The balance of allowing a character that isn’t particularly expressive to show their feelings, while still remaining true to her personality, is a hard one, and one that’s so impressive when done well.
A Passage to India is surprisingly good! I was ready for a lot of racist bullshit, and there are definitely problems (let’s just not talk about Alec Guinness playing an Indian yogi, eeeeeeek), but ultimately, I generally appreciated the ways that it portrays colonialism, especially for a movie from almost 40 years ago, based on a book from a century ago. Specifically, I love that most of Brits are absolutely despicable monsters, and no one could walk away from this film thinking, yep, those people should have been in charge. I also really enjoyed Victor Banerjee as Dr. Aziz: his acting is great, and should definitely have been at least up for some awards as well. It’s a long movie, but it moves by quite swiftly. Between this and Howard’s End, E. M. Forster adaptations have treated me well in this column!
Was the Oscar deserved?
Yes, Dame Ashcroft is now a new fave of mine.