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Passage to India, A

Columbia/Tri-Star // PG // April 15, 2008
List Price: $28.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by DVD Savant | posted April 14, 2008 | E-mail the Author

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Many reviewers in 1984 had faint praise for A Passage to India, as if they had almost forgotten its creator. David Lean hadn't made a film since Ryan's Daughter 14 years before. A Passage was criticized as too restrained and too remote from current events. It wasn't a huge 70mm attention getter like Lean's celebrated Lawrence of Arabia, which would be revived and restored only a few years later. Passage left its central conflict a relative mystery, confusing some viewers. And kids could barely recognize Alec Guinness in his guise as an old Indian intellectual, so connections with Star Wars were out. But Savant was transported by Passage, totally enthralled. This isn't some old man's movie or a weak sister to the Lean 'classics'. If anything it's better, certainly better than Doctor Zhivago. A Passage to India is a real movie, a rare item in the lean, mean Reagan years.


Adventurous and curious, young Englishwoman Adela Quested (Judy Davis) travels with the open-minded Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) to Chandrapore, India, perhaps to marry up-and-coming colonial judge Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers). Both newcomers are distressed by the boorish and hateful attitudes of the ruling British, and when her fiancé proves to be a similar 'Sahib' snob, Adela considers breaking off her engagement. But Mrs. Moore has a delightful encounter in a mosque with Muslim physician Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee), and with the help of local professor Richard Fielding (James Fox) they're soon meeting other Indians like the odd Professor Godbole (Alec Guinness) and learning more about this strange new country. Adela finds herself having emotional reactions to most everything, until an elaborate picnic in the hills puts her in the 'improper' position of being alone with the equally emotional, romantic Doctor Aziz. Conflicting sensations of culture and sex can have dire consequences, even in a rational person ...

David Lean is at the top of his form in A Passage to India, his last movie. The film is crisp, fast moving and technically assured. Its scale is well judged, fielding epic-sized crowd scenes when needed but focusing mostly on its interesting, complicated group of characters. Even Maurice Jarre's music is under control, after the enjoyable overstatement of Ryan's Daughter.

More than his earlier works, Passage is delicately balanced between the literary and cinematic form. Lean is not afraid to communicate through dialogue, but time and again images communicate what he wants us to feel - the heat and dust of Chandrapore, the cleanness of the mountains. Best of all, Lean uses visual symbols with breathtaking ease. In one of the best-edited scenes, Lean communicates Adela's sexual fear in a confrontation with erotic sculptures and a horde of hostile monkeys. She's never even in the same frame with a monkey, yet Lean makes us feel their threat. Monkey imagery appears at several key moments in the movie, and seems to represent the savagery and sexual chaos that the British fear in the Indian culture. Mrs. Moore is haunted by visions of the moon -- reflected in the Ganges at night and glowing through sunglasses at noon -- that clearly represent Death. When she speaks a portentous line about meaningless oblivion in the universe, we are given a vision of the dead lunar world that David Lynch would envy. Mrs. Moore's eventual off-screen fate is communicated in a classic image that combines the Forster text with the theme of reincarnation. When Mrs. Moore's daughter finally appears, we're given a curious sensation of multigenerational harmony. Shorter than the average epic, A Passage to India impresses with its depth of feeling, not with its 'bigness.'

Lean's casting is flawless. Australian Judy Davis makes a perfect Adela Quested, and it's nice to see the underused James Fox in such a sensitive role. Although an extremely inadvisable casting choice, Alec Guinness' imitation of an Indian is more than acceptable, and thankfully doesn't clash with the many real Indians who give the movie its sense of veracity. There are 'noble' natives and crass ones, educated and stupid. Godbole is something of a ditz and the defending counsel is a political schemer. Aziz and his friends are as awkward in their fawning toward the British, as some of the Brits are transparent with their contempt. It's nice to see Saeed Jaffrey of The Man Who Would be King in a small role. As Doctor Aziz, Victor Bannerjee should have won an Oscar. Expressive and intensely human, he is everything the handsome Omar Sharif was not in Zhivago.

Many of David Lean's best pictures investigate the clash of cultural values. He handles Japanese-English relations in WW2 with impressive sensitivity when other British pictures (such as Hammer's Camp on Blood Island) were still rank with racist outrage. Lean's approach to the issue of India and the Empire is also exemplary. Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus used poetic images to suggest that England would perhaps be better off quitting the country; Passage shows the wrongness of the situation through little details, mostly of colonial attitudes on both sides. The falling of rain occurs at critical moments in both films, in both cases marking moments in which characters realize that, 'Maybe it's time we packed our bags and left this place.'

Passage has its share of shock and tragedy but leaves the viewer with the mellow feeling that time indeed heals all wounds and that wisdom can only be learned through hard experience. Lean's previous four epics pictured people in wartime, under extraordinary stress of violent conflict. Here the fates might turn on a simple misunderstanding or details as small as someone loaning another person a 'back collar stud.' The film's intimacy makes it extraordinarily deep for an 'epic.'

Savant has heard the film criticized for its pace, which is a puzzle, because the movie really moves along at a brisk clip. When it does pause, it's to slow down a bit to appreciate a moment or meditate on a thought. There is heavy drama in the movie that hinges on events affected by strong emotion, even sexual hysteria. But Lean's style doesn't become hysterical. Human relationships are possessed of an 'unknowable' aspect, and Passage sometimes takes its time to acknowledge this factor. A Passage to India might just be the most profound of Lean's 'epic' quintet.

Columbia/Tristar's earlier DVD looked quite good, but their new Blu-ray disc of A Passage to India is stunning. The rich and intense imagery often reminds us of an earlier era of filmmaking, and the beauty of both vast oriental landscapes and simple close-ups is refreshing to see. Reappearing from the old DVD is a tightly edited collection of David Lean interview sound bites. He talks about actors and film adaptations, mostly centering on Passage.

The new Blu-ray disc comes with many more extras, beginning with a commentary by Richard Goodwin, the film's producer. A set of five featurettes, also encoded in 1080 hi-def, cover the film from every imaginable angle. Author E.M. Forster resisted earlier attempts to film his novel. Director Lean was indeed unhappy with the poor reception given his Ryan's Daughter and spent several years writing his own script for Passage. Although actor Judy Davis and Victor Bannerjee are not among the interviewees, we hear good input from James Fox, Nigel Havers, Richard Wilson and Art Malik.

The stories of the shooting are backed by excellent stills from the producer's collection. Because crowd control is so difficult in India, a large walled palace and compound were rented for the film, and many of the sets built on its grounds, including several long lanes lined with completely stocked shops to form a street market. Mattes were used to represent dockside scenes. The 'Marabar' caves were blasted out of solid rock, and then filled in when the company left. Scenes filmed back in Britain produced continuity problems when the local Indian extras proved to be too light-skinned, and too well fed.

All of the interviewees offer vivid memories of working with Lean, who could be a humorless stickler for tiny details. Lean insisted that the actors re-do intense emotional scenes while he rearranged laundry on a clothesline. He stared at complicated setups for an eternity, trying to decide what to do while hundreds of extras waited. All of the actors consider their participation in A Passage to India to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Another extra is a Blu-ray exclusive: Beyond the Passage: Picture-in-Graphics Track." It's similar to a trivia track, except that the movie shrinks to a smaller size to make room for text and images that illustrate historical and filming facts about the settings and locations, often with deeper pages to access. It's like having a follow-along book of information to go with the film.

One positive note about Blu-ray discs: the standard packaging is a plastic case with rounded corners that's both thinner and shorter than a DVD keep case. This will allow collectors to keep more discs in a smaller space than they could with DVDs.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, A Passage to India rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary with producer Richard Goodwin, Featurettes (1080) 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; and a Picture-in-Graphics Track Beyond the Passage.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 13, 2008

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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