Sony // 1984 // 164 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // April 18th, 2008
"One can't run with the hare and hunt with the hounds -- at least not in this country!"
With the likes of Blithe Spirit and Brief Encounter, David Lean cemented his reputation as a great director, but with the likes of Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lean showed he was a master of epic storytelling and a big draw at the box office to boot.
David Lean's first film in fourteen years, A Passage to India released in 1984, his previous film being Ryan's Daughter in 1970, also turned out to be his last. Based on the novel by E.M. Forster, the film collected eleven Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Peggy Ashcroft) and Best Original Score (Maurice Jarr).
Set in India during the time of the British Raj, albeit a time when the Indian Independence Movement was a growing voice of dissent, A Passage to India tells the story of Miss Adela Quested who, along with her future mother-in-law Mrs. Moore, travels to India to join her fiancé, city magistrate Ronny Heaslop.
Disappointed to find Colonial India merely an extension of the England they have left behind, both Adela and Mrs. Moore are compelled to discover "the real India." While Adela is taken aback by the racist attitudes of the English who have settled in India towards the Indians who are native to the country, Mrs. Moore is far more vociferous in her disapproval. An opportunity to see the "real India" arises after a chance meeting between Mrs. Moore and Dr Aziz, an Indian very much in awe of the English. Soon, Adela and Mrs. Moore join their new friend on an outing to the Marabar Caves, a trip hastily planned due to Aziz being too embarrassed to take them to his own humble home.
Following an unpleasant experience in the first cave they visit, due to the thunderous echoes that provide the caves with their reputation, Mrs. Moore decides to sit out the remainder of the trip leaving Adela and Aziz alone. But before long Adela is seen running from one of the caves in panic with Aziz desperately searching for her. Upon arriving home, Aziz is immediately arrested, charged with the attempted rape of Adela.
Soon the relationship between the Colonials and the Indians, already tenuous, threatens to erupt as all eyes are fixed on the courthouse where Aziz stands trial.
There are not (or indeed ever have been) many filmmakers with as good an eye for the cinematic as David Lean. Able to craft striking images that live long in the memory, without the need for any special effects, Lean made the most of working within a visual medium. Working on A Passage to India, ably supported by cinematographer Ernest Day (who would later work on Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, fact fans), Lean captures the natural beauty of India and uses it as the canvas on which to retell E.M. Forster's classic novel.
Dealing with the inherent racism that resides barely hidden under the well-to-do exterior of the British who had settled in India, A Passage to India begins well, really well. Under director David Lean's watchful eye, we meet Mrs. Moore, played with passion by Peggy Ashcroft (The 39 Steps), who, along with her son's fiancée, Adela (Judy Davis, Naked Lunch) arrives in India and immediately find herself at odds with her fellow countrymen. But while Adela expresses a quiet concern at the prejudice shown, Mrs. Moore is far more vocal, struggling to understand for what purpose the British are in India. Upon hearing her son's argument that the British are doing important work, saving the country by giving the Indians leadership and justice, she argues the whole thing is nothing but an exercise in power, sharply dressing him down when she comments that "God has put us on earth to love and help our fellow men." Indeed she frequently finds herself embarrassed by the goodwill and generosity of the Indians, while her fellow countrymen in return treat them with contempt, putting her tolerance of their attitude soon within breaking point.
The two find a likeminded friend in Richard Fielding (James Fox, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), principal of the government college. He too has no time for the attitudes of his fellow colonists, rejecting their bigotry and embracing India, and its people, as his home. When pressed during a conversation with his Indian friends on how it is fair he holds such an important position while qualified Indians are overlooked, he quips, "I got here first...Well, I like it here and that's my excuse." After being asked about those who don't like the country, his reply is delivered in good humor but relays his real beliefs, "Chuck 'em out." It is Fielding who formally introduces Mrs. Moore and Adela to Dr. Aziz and "the real India" and, indirectly, the incident that will drive the film's final third.
But before the film makes the switch to courtroom drama, we are treated to an excellent study of racial intolerance in a time that seemingly encouraged such views and the few who stood against it.
The work of the cast is uniformly excellent. Standing out however is Victor Banerjee (Ghare-Baire) as Dr. Aziz. About as sympathetic a character as you could hope for, his performance is mesmerizing. Able to convey with just a look more emotion than many lesser actors could with a thousand words, A Passage to India is as much his story as anyone's. His character's progression is a journey well worth going on. Beginning the film enthralled by the English and their traditions, he finds himself almost embarrassed by his own culture and humble home. His pride, at not only being accepted as an equal but also at being called friend by Fielding, Adela, and Mrs. Brooks is overwhelming, resulting in perhaps the best scene in the entire movie when a sick Aziz is visited by Fielding. Initially Aziz is uncomfortable at his new friend seeing his modest dwelling, "Look...look at the mess. Look at the flies." Before long though, Aziz realizes that Fielding cares not for such trivial things and feels the need to share something of himself with Fielding. Instructing Fielding to open a drawer and remove a photograph he reveals, "She was my wife. You are the first Englishman she has ever come before. Now put her away." The significance of this act is not lost on Fielding, "l don't know why you pay me this great compliment, but l do appreciate it." Both Banerjee and Fox play the scene perfectly, all captured by Lean who proves he is as much at home filming an intimate scene as he is shooting the grand spectacles he is perhaps better known for.
That Aziz's own stance of racial tolerance will itself be tested due to the hatred he faces once the charges are brought against him, adds a somber note to the film's finale. Totally rejecting the English he once so admired, and finally embracing his own heritage, the Aziz we see after the court case has reached its conclusion is a jaded figure, a far cry from the man we first met, yet in a fitting conclusion Lean hints that there may be hope.
The discs 1.66:1 1080p transfer is, especially when taking into account the age of the film, quite stunning. Small details, such as the texture of materials, are highly evident with lavish, yet natural-looking color and rock solid black levels. The film is showing very few signs of its age and bar a veneer of grain (which really didn't bother me at all) is nearly flawless. Sharp as a tack throughout, A Passage To India, on Blu-ray, puts to shame a great many more recent films with its transfer. The discs audio, employing a 5.1 TrueHD soundtrack, never really makes the most of the next-generation disc format. A front heavy mix means the side and rear speakers are only occasionally employed, though when they are the result is extremely effective.
Extras on the disc are decent, though, hardly taking advantage of the Blu-ray format. The "Beyond the Passage" feature, exclusive to the Blu-ray release, provides graphics and text as the movie plays. In theory this is a great idea, in execution it leaves a little to be desired. The commentary probably stands as the best feature, with producer Richard Goodwin offering a genuinely informative track. The rest of the bonus material consists of short featurettes that, at around the 10-minute mark each, are worthy of viewing once, but aren't something I see many revisiting.
The fourteen-year hiatus taken by Lean following Ryan's Daughter sadly shows, his mastery of his craft not quite as majestic as before. At 164 minutes the film is leisurely paced, perhaps a little too leisurely. While the film takes its time introducing the main players and offering a sobering portrait of the British Raj, I can't help but feel it's all a little too focused on the characters and forgets to drive the plot forward. By the time the "incident" at the picnic occurs, we are around two-thirds into the movie, almost as though the main storyline had been forgotten; the court case is so rushed that the whole thing feels a little top-heavy.
Above all else, A Passage to India has one niggling flaw; when the film shifts to the courtroom scenes that take the lion's share of the films final third, things begin to head south, and fast. Problem number one is that, rather than turning into a gripping courtroom drama, as perhaps we would anticipate, Passage becomes a rather sedate affair. Not helping matters is the fact we are fully aware of Aziz's innocence and the final outcome is so obvious the scenes are totally bereft of tension.
I also found the character of Adela to be handled far less successfully than the other central protagonists and her reasoning for the attempted-rape accusation to be unconvincing. While the film reveals Adela to be confused by her emotions (particularly those of a sexual nature) and troubled by the improperness of the situation she finds herself in when alone with Aziz prior to the alleged attack, it still seems like a pretty big ask to expect us to accept she would accuse someone of such a heinous crime, especially someone who was nothing but gentlemanly towards her. I can accept the reaction of the racist Colonials, jumping at the chance to exert their authority over the "natives," but considering the plot hinges on the incident that transpires during the picnic, it feels a little undercooked. Sadly, by this point any energy the film once had has already been sapped away, meaning interest in the film begins to wane dramatically.
Finally, while I don't want to knock Alec Guinness -- the man is rightly held in high regard -- it just seems odd that in a film with racism firmly at its core, a white man is cast to play an Indian. Perhaps it's just me, but that seems slightly at odds with the themes that run through the film. Don't get me wrong, Guinness gives a fine enough performance, but still, something just doesn't sit right.
It seems strange that we get A Passage to India as David Lean's first Blu-ray release, while Lawrence of Arabia at the time of writing this review, is without a release date. Although this is one of Lean's lesser works, we are still talking about the works of a master filmmaker and the sumptuous visuals alone would make A Passage To India on Blu-ray worthy of purchase. However, despite never reaching true greatness due to a number of missteps, the film has enough plus points, the understated performance by its cast chief amongst them, to make A Passage To India a worthwhile addition to anyone's burgeoning Blu-ray collection.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 164 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Beyond the Package: Picture-in-Graphics Track
* Commentary with Producer Richard Goodwin
* E.M. Forster: Profile of an Author
* An Epic Takes Shape
* An Indian Affair
* Only Connect: A Vision of India
* Casting a Classic
* David Lean: Shooting with the Master
* Reflections of David Lean
* Original DVD Verdict Review