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Passage to India, A

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Review by DVD Savant | posted March 19, 2001 | E-mail the Author

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Critics in 1984 had faint praise for A Passage to India, as if they had almost forgotten its creator, who hadn't made a film since Ryan's Daughter, 14 years before.  It was too restrained, too remote from current events, and not a huge 70mm attention getter like Lawrence of Arabia.  It left its central conflict a relative mystery, confusing some viewers.  And kids could barely recognize Alec Guiness, who never once picked up a light saber.  But Savant was transported by Passage, totally enthralled.  This wasn't some old man's movie, or a weak sister to the Lean 'classics', if anything it was better, certainly better than Ryan or Zhivago.  It was also a real movie, a rarity in the 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 fiancee proves to be a similar 'Sahib' snob, Adela considers breaking off her engagement.  But Mrs. Moore has a delightful encounter with muslim doctor Aziz (Victor Banerjee) in a mosque, 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, technically assured.  Its scale is well judged, fielding epic-like crowd scenes when needed, but mostly focusing 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 his images are what make you feel what he wants you 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 very non-cute monkeys.  She's never even in the same frame with a monkey, yet Lean makes us feel their threat.  Monkeys show up at several key moments in the movie, and seem 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 seem to represent Death.  When she speaks a portentious line about meaningless oblivion in the universe, we are given a giant vision of the dead lunar world that David Lynch would envy.  Her eventual fate is communicated in a classic image that combines the text of Forster, with the theme of reincarnation.  When Mrs. Moore's daughter finally appears, there's 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.  Alec Guiness' 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, 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, handling subjects as loaded as 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 handling of the issue of India and the Empire is also exemplary.  Black Narcissus had been poetical in suggesting that perhaps England would be better off packing up and leaving; Passage shows the wrongness of the situation through little details, mostly of colonial attitudes both Indian and English.  1  Watching this movie, you feel you learn something real about a people and place at a specific moment in time.  It's an enriching experience.

Passage has its share of shock and tragedy, but the mellow feeling left with the viewer is that time indeed heals wounds, and that wisdom can be learned through hard experience.  Lean's previous four epics all concerned themselves with people in wartime, under extraordinary stress.  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 doesn't get hysterical.  There's an 'unknowable' element to human relationships, and Passage sometimes takes its time to acknowledge this unknowable factor.  A Passage to India might just be the most profound of Lean's 'epic' quintet.

Columbia/Tristar's DVD of A Passage to India is like eyewash.  The beauty of the images, vast oriental landscapes or simple closeups, is refreshing to watch.  The liner notes rightly call the movie lush and engrossing, and Columbia's superb presentation equals the theatrical experience:  Savant has a battered vhs prerecord whose hours on this Earth are now numbered.  The sound is clear and rich, a powerful Dolby Surround mix that does not seem to have been reengineered from mono, as was Bridge on the River Kwai.  There is no docu, but there is a collection of David Lean interview sound bites about actors and film adaptations, mostly centering on Passage.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, A Passage to India rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailers (not for Passage), notes, David Lean videotape interview footage.
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: March 18, 2001


1. The falling of rain happens 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.' Return

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