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Passage to India, A Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 June 2008
ImageAlthough he remains one of the greatest directors in movie history, David Lean made relatively few films, but many of them are classics: “Brief Encounter” (1945), “Great Expectations” (1946), “Oliver Twist” (1948) “Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962)  Even Lean’s second-tier films are exceptional: “Blithe Spirit” (1945), “Breaking the Sound Barrier” (1952), “Summertime,” (1955), “Doctor Zhivago” (1965), “Ryan’s Daughter” (1970) and this, “A Passage to India,” his last movie.  And his first in fourteen years.

Based on the novel by E.M. Forster (“Howards End,” “A Room with a View”), “A Passage to India” isn’t one of Lean’s awesome epics that seem to dominate his filmography, though it is made on a grand scale and is visually rich and beautiful.  All the exteriors were shot in India, mostly on the grounds of a gigantic palace, so Lean could more effectively control the period look (the movie is set in the mid-1920s) and numerous extras. 

Lean was so shocked by the largely negative reaction to “Ryan’s Daughter” (much in need of re-evaluation) that, wounded, he retreated from movies and from life in general, living for years in Bora Bora.  “A Passage to India” was also unfairly judged, being compared unfavorably to “Zhivago” and “Kwai.”  The casting of Alec Guinness as an Indian also produced some complaints—just as Guinness himself had warned it would.  But there’s nothing gimmicky about his skillful, respectful performance.  (He was in more of Lean’s movies than any other actor, though they weren’t friends away from the movie sets.)

But the great director bravely did return, not with a review-proof sweeping spectacle, but an intimate story about the relation between Britain and India, during a period when the “British Raj” was just beginning to crumble, and the Indian nationalist movement was on the rise.  In 1947, India left the British Empire. Adela Quested (Judy Davis), a young Englishwoman, is excited by her voyage to India as the companion to elderly Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft), who’s also thrilled by the journey.  On their ship, they meet the Turtons (Richard Wilson and Antonia Pemberton), who dismay the two women by their casually racist and elitist attitudes.  Mrs. Moore, however, is not dissuaded from her desire to meet Indians on a social level.

This dismays her son Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers), an official in the region they’re visiting; to him, as to most British in India, there’s an impermeable social barrier between Britons and Indians.  He and Adela have known each other for years, and are considering announcing their engagement.  We also meet Dr. Aziz H. Ahmed (Victor Banerjee), an enthusiastic young English doctor, hoping to make good social connections.

On a beautiful moonlit evening, Dr. Aziz meets Mrs. Moore as she respectfully visits an otherwise deserted local mosque.  He somewhat shyly admits he’s seen corpses drifting in the nearby Ganges, which is populated with crocodiles.  Mrs. Moore is amazed—“What a terrible river” she exclaims, then sighs, “What a wonderful river.”

Ronny somewhat reluctantly agrees to his mother’s request for a large garden party to which both British and Indian guests will be invited.  But she and Adela are disappointed that the social barriers are still firmly in place.  They meet Richard Fielding (James Fox), a long-time Indian resident, but one of the rare Britons who’s completely comfortable in the country; he hasn’t a trace of racism. 

Adela is slightly attracted to Dr. Aziz, but doesn’t realize it herself, not even when she suddenly tells Ronny that they shouldn’t be married after all—a big surprise to him, as they had yet to announce their engagement.  Mrs. Moore wants to come to Aziz’s home, but he’s ashamed of it, so asks Fielding if he can host a small party at Fielding’s home.

He invites somewhat enigmatic Professor Godbole (Alec Guinness), an orthodox Hindu; he’s unassuming, anything but forward, but cautiously aware of the social divisions.  But he does make prophecies.  When Mrs. Moore and Adela say they want to go to the fabled Marabar Caves, Godbole is apprehensive—a voyage on Tuesday, he says, is “inauspicious”—but Aziz is abubble with enthusiasm.

They have to take a train to get there, so Aziz arranges everything—chairs, tables, food, a ladder, an entire expedition.  Fielding and Godbole arrive too late at the depot to board the train.  At the caves, the echoes within frighten Mrs. Moore, so Adela, Aziz and a guide go alone to the upper caves.  But Adela rushes down later, bleeding, frightened; she says Aziz attacked her.

This leads to the climax of the film, a tense courtroom sequence.

The movie is largely about Adela’s unexpected awakening to her own sexual nature.  She’s British, of course, and therefore everything is repressed and understated.  One morning, she sets out on a bicycle ride alone.  The soundtrack here soon becomes rich with natural sounds of animals and birds in the trees and grass around her.  Riding through an area of tall grass, she finds the ruins of a temple, with many statues in erotic poses.  Soon, some monkeys gather and run toward her, so she flees, sweating, uncomfortable, unsure of her own feelings.  This wordless sequence is brilliantly shot and edited, showcasing Judy Davis’ intense, believable performance. 

Lean was an editor before he became director, cutting several of the great Michael Powell’s movies.  (Powell said Lean was the best movie editor, ever.)  On “A Passage to India,” Lean was credited as editor for the first time in 42 years, and for the only time on a film he directed.

E.M. Forster wrote only five novels in his lifetime, but still established himself as one of the great English authors of the 20th century.  He was apprehensive about “A Passage to India” being filmed (he died well before the film was finally made), for fear that the filmmakers would upset his careful balance, coming down on either the Indian or British sides too heavily.  But the film doesn’t do that.  Yes, a Brit says “I’ve had 25 years experience in this country, and I’ve never seen anything but disaster result when English and Indians attempt to be intimate.”

At first, what happened in those caves seems to be another disaster, but the movie is not about what really happened.  (And we never learn the specific truth.)  It’s about the English in India, and the Indians and the British.  There are no heroes and no villains; Adela is a victim of her own insecurities and lack of awareness of what human sexuality is like.  Aziz is an innocent, blithely unaware of the dangers almost inherent in closer social contacts with the English, and delighted by the kindness of Mrs. Moore.  But he’s somewhat exploited by those who want to use his problems as an instrument of political/social change.  One Englishman observes, sagely he thinks, that he knows one sure truth: “The darker races are attracted to the fairer, but the reverse is not true.”  Only Fielding stands apart from both Indians and the English, sure that his friend Aziz could not be guilty, but still not sure that Adela has been lying.

In part, the story is a metaphor for the English in India, why the occupation was doomed to ultimate failure.  But it’s also about these specific people in this situation; we are invited to judge the more racist of the Brits, but also guided to understand that the Indians have their darker side as well—there’s a lot of racism among them, too. 

The movie is a sumptuous production, perfectly suited for the high definition of Blu-Ray.  We see India as a riot of colors, textures and ever-changing visual enchantments and unpleasant sights.  Aziz has grandly arranged for an elephant to carry his group from the railway station to the caves, high on a rock bluff.  Lean’s camera trucks along beside the painted elephant as it ambles along a slope; the skin of the elephant, the smooth, cool rock of the cliff are almost palpable.  When Adlea enters the grassy area of the abandoned temple, the gold of the grass seems to glow.  The end sequence, set many years later, takes place up near the Himalayas, and we see those grand mountains as a snow-clad backdrop to the beautiful lake Fielding has to cross to meet Aziz.  “A Passage to India” is a beautiful movie.

It also sounds great.  Maurice Jarre, who composed four of Lean’s movies, turns in a lush, symphonic score of the old school, lavish and fully orchestrated throughout.  The production sound is also beautifully handled.  Jarre won the Oscar for his score, deservedly so.  The movie was nominated for eleven Oscars, including best director, and won two, for the score and for Peggy Ashcroft as best supporting actress.  It was also nominated for best editing (Lean), best adapted screenplay (also Lean), best sound, best picture, best costume design (Judy Moorcroft), best art director (John Box and Hugh Scaife), best cinematography (Ernest Day) and best actress (Judy Davis).

The disc comes accompanied by several exceptionally good extras.  New for this Blu-Ray release is an interesting “picture-in-graphics” track; as you watch the film with this engaged, text and pictures relevant to the scene at hand appear.  In an unusual and welcome touch, you can leap directly from one of these to the next without sitting through the rest of the movie again.

Most of the other supplements seem to have appeared on early DVD or laserdisc releases of the film, but it’s fine that they’re included here.  There are several featurettes about making the movie, each emphasizing a different aspect.  Many of the people involved appear—producer Richard Goodwin, assistant directors Patrick Cadell and Christopher Figg, actors Nigel Havers, Art Malik, James Fox, Richard Wilson, casting director Priscilla John and others.  All have great praise for director David Lean, but all also comment on his occasionally dictatorial nature, his fussiness and his insistence on perfection.  And all sound very proud to have worked on the film—they should be.

There’s also segments from an interview with Lean himself.  The director died in 1991 (as did costar Peggy Ashcroft), in the midst of preparing a film of Joseph Conrad’s novel “Nostromo.”  As with all great directors, probably with all artists in every medium, Lean was unique—nobody else ever made movies quite like he did.  “A Passage to India” may not be one of his greatest movies, but it’s far better than most movies by anyone else, and this Blu-Ray disc is an excellent presentation of a worthy movie classic.

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