Judge Clark Douglas has never been to India, but he has eaten at a couple of Indian restaurants.
Our review of A Passage To India (Blu-Ray), published April 18th, 2008, is also available.
In 1957, director David Lean crafted the hugely successful epic, The Bridge on the River Kwai, which won a great deal of critical acclaim. He followed this with the giant Lawrence of Arabia, a massive film that frequently is named among the greatest of all time. In 1965, Lean's Dr. Zhivago was greeted with some good reviews, but far less enthusiasm than his previous two films. In 1970, the large-scale Irish romance Ryan's Daughter was harshly panned across the board, and Lean disappeared. Feeling creatively stifled, the director vanished from the cinematic scene for a long time.
In 1984, David Lean returned to the world of film one last time, directing an adaptation of E.M. Forster's A Passage to India. Is the director's swan song a final masterpiece, a sad finish to a struggling career, or something in-between? With the aid of a new two-disc special edition DVD release, let's examine the case.
Facts of the Case
In the 1920s, the elderly Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft, The Nun's Story) and the young Adela Quested (Judy Davis, Marie Antoinette) travel to British-ruled India to visit Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers, Empire of the Sun). Ronny is a city magistrate who also happens to be Mrs. Moore's son and Adela's fiancé. Adela and Mrs. Moore are both quickly bothered by the way things are segregated in the country, and request to see "something of the real India." Despite a few protests from Ronny and others who insist that mixing the citizens of England and India is a terrible idea, a local schoolmaster named Dr. Fielding (James Fox, The Remains of the Day) cheerfully agrees to help the two curious women.
Fielding introduces the ladies to the young and friendly Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee, Bitter Moon) as well as the wise and skeptical Professor Godbole (Alec Guiness, The Bridge on the River Kwai). In a somewhat foolish and hasty attempt to show his hospitality to these two kind English women, Dr. Aziz offers to arrange a tour of the mysterious Marabar caves. Mrs. Moore and Adela both gladly accept the offer, but something goes terribly wrong in the middle of the tour. Adela emerges from one of the caves scratched and bloodied, and before anyone can process what has happened, Dr. Aziz finds himself arrested on charges of attempted rape. Politics, racism, and justice all battle for the top slot as the baffled Fielding tries to sort things out. What happened at the caves? What is happening now? Above all, why is it happening?
Before viewing this film again for the first time in years, I decided to sit down and read the E.M. Forster novel. It is an excellent book, and if we're going to make page-to-screen comparisons, I suspect I would find myself being quite critical of David Lean's version of A Passage to India. You see, as an adaptation of Forster, the film isn't as successful as such well-respected Merchant-Ivory productions as A Room with a View and Howard's End. However, as a David Lean epic, it actually works quite well. Lean sacrifices a lot of small details from the book, taking the basic story and ideas and adapting them to his own style. What results may not be a great literary adaptation, but it is very good cinema.
The film is more or less divided into two parts. The first half of the film picks up somewhere around the area where Lean left off with Ryan's Daughter, a giant epic with stunning images and enormous scope. We spend a full 90 minutes simply getting to know the characters and the location, as Lean very successfully immerses us into that strange, mysterious and fascinating place known as India. The film was shot on location, which was quite expensive, but it was worth every penny. The movie has such a strong and compelling sense of location; there were some shots of the country so inviting that they made me want to leap inside my television screen. A Passage to India begins as a film of images, as Lean successfully gives us a sense of how Adela feels by showing things that are hypnotic but also quite foreign to the eyes of westerners. This is most fascinatingly captured during a remarkable cinematic sequence when Adela discovers some erotic statues, which seem grotesque and appalling at a first glance but sensual and carnal at a second.
The second half of the film begins immediately after the pivotal cave sequence (which Lean handles in an appropriately vague manner). Suddenly the scale begins to shrink, Lean moves from giant wide shots to intimate close-ups, and the film shifts from exotic locations and physical situations to human beings and emotional situations. The high point of drama here is a well-staged courtroom scene, in which the potential outcome seems to have nothing at all to do with available evidence or justice. It's the kind of character-centered filmmaking that Lean hadn't done in decades, and it seems appropriate that he should close his career in the same manner in which he began it (see his excellent Dickens adaptations from the 1940s if you haven't all ready).
The performances here are mostly very solid. Peggy Ashcroft won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her turn as Mrs. Moore. Her compassionate and lovely performance is one of the film's high points. Judy Davis is something of an enigma as Adela, but I think that is quite appropriate. Adela remains an unsolved mystery, leaving an intentional hole somewhere in the center of this plot that enhances its power. James Fox has built a career out of playing well-mannered English upper-crust types, and does so once again here. It's a nice performance that blends slightly stuffy cultural mannerisms with genuinely good-hearted motivations. Victor Banerjee is guilty of over emoting from time to time (something that apparently made Lean rather cranky), but he does root his performance in a heartfelt place.
In addition to the simply sublime cinematography and locations, the film is generally superb on all of the technical fronts. For the first time since the early 1940s, Lean actually edited A Passage to India himself, and does a fine job of pacing the film. It's long, but not overlong or self-indulgent (as were Dr. Zhivago or Ryan's Daughter). Maurice Jarre's score is very good, particularly solid during the scenes in which it must carefully tread the line between romance and mystery. The main theme featured over the opening and closing credits is arguably a bit too trite (what's up with that oom-pah beat over the end credits?), but it does manage to nicely blend the exoticism of India with the swooning feel of music that would have been popular in England at the time.
The film certainly looks excellent, thanks to a very strong DVD transfer. While undoubtedly this isn't as good as the Blu-Ray edition, it's still about as good as you could ask for from a film that is over 20 years old. Sound is very strong for the most part, even if the score sounds ever-so-slightly damaged during the main title and a couple of other moments. The DVD also has a lot of new bonus features, the first of which is a commentary from producer Richard Goodwin. There are some very interesting stories here about Lean, though Goodwin does struggle to find something to say for the full 164 minutes. A one-person commentary on a film this long would be hard for most people to pull off successfully, so it's no surprise that Goodwin doesn't exactly pass with flying colors. Nonetheless, Lean fans will want to take a listen for all the first-hand stories from the set.
The second disc offers seven featurettes, which combine for a total running time of just over 70 minutes. The brief look at E.M. Forster is too short, but still engaging. A Forster expert speculates that the author might have appreciated the vision that Lean was trying to create, but that he probably wouldn't have liked the film version of A Passage to India too much. The five featurettes dealing explicitly with the making of the film are all quite good and refreshingly honest. Pretty much all the living cast and crew members participate, with the notable exception of Judy Davis. Finally, eight minutes of interview footage with David Lean himself are most notable for the inclusion of some rather chilly comments about his relationship with Alec Guiness.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Even if you are able to ignore the ways the vision of the book and the film differ (something I am willing to forgive), there are still a couple of noteworthy problems with A Passage to India. First of all, and most important, the casting of Alec Guiness in the role of Professor Godbole seems to damage one of the film's key themes. The movie deals with people attempting to overcome popular stereotypes about the people of India. However, by casting a white British actor in the role of an Indian character that is a key part of helping bridge the gap between the two races, the film shoots itself in the foot. There's nothing wrong with Guiness' performance, he plays the role with respectful intelligence, but the fact that he is playing the part is a glaring mistake. Indeed, even Guiness felt he probably shouldn't play the part, but agreed to do so at Lean's request.
The second problem comes late in the film, and has to do with the emotional journey of Dr. Aziz. For most of the film, he is a very friendly, emotionally vulnerable human being, someone who tries to be kind and good even in the face of rude behavior. However, during a key portion late in the film, he becomes tense, cold, and emotionally closed-off. This is understandable. SPOILER ALERT Dr. Aziz lets these feelings grow and simmer for years, becoming very bitter and hard-hearted. Strangely, when Dr. Fielding offers a simple piece of information, Dr. Aziz does a complete 180-degree turn within a matter of seconds and acts as if the previous few years had never existed. This plotline is handled with embarrassingly sloppy simplicity. END SPOILER
Despite the aforementioned issues, I still recommend A Passage to India. That recommendation extends in particular to those who admire David Lean's work, because there are moments when it shines brilliantly on both epic and intimate levels. It is a fitting swan song from an artist who knew how to take full advantage of the medium in which he worked.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Columbia Pictures
• Commentary by Producer Richard Goodwin
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