Monday, 30 August 2010

Heat and Dust, James Ivory, UK 1983

Having recently watched James Ivory's Heat and Dust again, it occurred to me that much as the 1980s was the decade when the Holocaust started to become a topic in German films, it was a trend that had its equivalent in British - and to some extent also US - cinema in a look back to the colonial age: Heat and Dust (1983), Passage to India (1984), White Mischief (1987), and Out of Africa (1985) are probably the most prominent examples of films produced with UK or US coin that are set in a an erstwhile British colony, usually India or Kenya. What all four films have in common is that they mock the arrogance and ignorance of the British towards the countries they had claimed. Perhaps, occupied would be a better word. But more interestingly, three of the above examples - Heat and Dust, Passage to India, and Out of Africa - follow a similar pattern inasmuch as a number of central characters are identical in all three films.

Judy Davies as Adela Quested in David Lean's A Passage to India (UK/ US 1984)

For starters, in all three examples the main protagonist is female: Olivia in Heat and Dust, Adela in Passage to India, and Karen in Out of Africa. Moreover, Olivia, Adela, and Karen all arrive with an indifferent, if not superior, attitude towards their new country but gradually come to appreciate it, perhaps even prefer it to the country of their birth, much to the distress of the emigre community, which, as a result, increasingly shuns them. However, in all three cases, one renegade member of this emigre community stands by them when literally all other members of this community have turned against them: Fielding's support for Adela has its parallel in Harry's for Olivia in Heat and Dust and Berkeley Cole's for Karen in Out of Africa.

Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen and Robert as Denys Finchatton in Sydney Pollack's Out of Africa (US 1985)

Additionally, Adela and Karen also have a native male sage as their confidante - Godbole and Farah respectively - whom they go to for guidance and advise. But most importantly, the marriages of Adela, Karen and Olivia all fall apart as a result of the impact their adopted country has on them. Much to the outrage of their fellow countrymen and women, Adela and Olivia even fall for a native - Aziz and The Nawab respectively - while Karen's choice of Denys is equally frowned upon for although he's not a native he might as well be. Denys makes no bones about preferring the company of the natives to that of his compatriots whom he considers inferior and arrogant, an attitude Karen is to adopt over the course of the film.

Greta Scacchi as Olivia and Christopher Cazenove as Douglas in James Ivory's Heat and Dust (UK 1983)

Adela and Karen both return to their homeland after things had come to a head. Olivia, however, chooses to remain in her adopted country, though by deserting the emigre community, opting for a life in solitude in a remote place up in the mountains. While Karen wants to settle in Kenya out of curiosity ("At least we'll have been somewhere"), Adela and Olivia are indifferent upon their arrival in India as their main reason for going is to join their husbands. However, the experiences and the people they encounter in their new home leave their marks on them and at the end Adela, Olivia and Karen are no longer the same person they were upon their arrival. Like a rite of passage, living abroad has changed them, made them stronger, and they've become all the more interesting and fascinating for it.

What I don't know is, if these similarities in the narratives of those three films are merely a coincidence or if, for instance, one screenwriter took their cue from another. From my own research on German-Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany, I do know, however, that women found it far easier to settle and integrate themselves into their adopted country than did men. While of course, Adela's, Olivia's and Karen's experience can hardly be compared to that of the Jews being driven out of their home country, the ability to adapt to a new one can. Hence, it may not be a coincidence after all, to find women at the heart of these colonial narratives which are, in their essence, about migrating from one country to another, for that's where they historically belong.