David Lean was one of the few filmmakers who could successfully balance the epic with the intimate. Be it The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, or Dr. Zhivago, Lean’s epics gave us breathtaking widescreen visions of far away places while at the same time never losing sight of what really drove his films: character and plot.
His winning ways stumbled a bit in 1970 with the Irish epic Ryan’s Daughter, a film where the scenery definitely outshined everything else. The film did and continues to have its ardent supporters. Upon release, Ryan’s Daughter played for two years straight in one theater in England. Critics, however, were not among the devout. New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael gave the film such a caustic review that Lean didn’t make another movie for 14 years (and people think I take things too personally!). His “comeback” ”and final- film, 1984’s A Passage to India, proved to be a return to form for the filmmaker, a stirring drama that turned out to be his best work since Lawrence of Arabia twenty-two years prior.
Based on the E.M. Forster novel of the same name, Passage centers around a young British woman named Adela Quested (Judi Davis), who travels to India in the 1920s. Accompanied by her fiancé’s mother, Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft), the two hope to see the real India during their visit instead of one that is the result of the condescending, racist rule of Colonial Britain currently in place.
Mrs. Moore’s first opportunity occurs quite by chance the night she visits a mosque and encounters the young, kindhearted Hindu doctor Aziz (Victor Banerjee). He quickly discovers that in Mrs. Moore, the rigid divisions of class inherit under British rule do not apply. This only endears her to him, filling the young Aziz with the hope that common ground can be reached and that social divides can be crossed.
The following day, the two women are invited to the home of Cyril Fielding (James Fox), the British principal of a local government college in Chandrapore. There, the women meet an associate of Fielding’s, a Hindu professor named Godbole (Alec Guiness).They also encounter Aziz, whom Fielding and Adele are meeting for the first time. Eager to please his new British friends who are treating him as an equal, Aziz decides to arrange a day trip to the Marabar caves for the group.
When Fielding and Godbole miss the train to Marabar, Aziz is left to play host to the two women. Things go okay for the most part, until Aziz and Adele decide to visit a set of caves on their own. A short time later, Adele flees from the caves, bruised and bloodied from a fall down a very steep hill, and is rescued and returned to Chandrapore by a woman who gave Fielding a ride to the caves. Aziz, Fielding and Mrs. Moore head back to the city, unaware of what has happened to Ms. Quested. They soon find out what happens when Aziz is arrested at the train station, accused of raping Ms. Quested. With tensions already simmering between Indians and Brits, this event ”and its eventual outcome- causes quite the uproar on both sides.
With Forster’s familiar storytelling themes (sexual repression and awakening of a young Brit, hypocrisy and social class differences with a dash of racial tension mixed in for good measure) all present in the novel of A Passage to India, one could easily see how a movie adaptation would have turned out had it been handled by the Merchant Ivory production team, who had two of their biggest hits with two Forster adaptations, 1986’s A Room with a View and 1992’s Howards End. Passage would have been competently made and somewhat involving, but also dry, slow and painfully overlong.
Fortunately, James Ivory and Ishmael Merchant didn’t get the chance to adapt Passage. David Lean did, and despite that self-imposed 14-year big screen exile, the filmmaker showed that he still had what it took to deliver a great movie. A Passage to India is not only a gorgeous epic; it is also an involving, intimate drama that perfectly conveys all of the themes and power of Forster’s novel without shoving either down our throats or sucking the life out of the story.
Backed by an ace production team, which includes cinematographer Ernest Day, production designer John Box and composer Maurice Jarre, Lean transports the viewer to the Far East country, showing both the beauty and the beast of India, its picturesque landscapes, mountain ranges and caves as well as the dire poverty suffered under the oppressive nature of Colonial Britain. Never allowing his screenplay adaptation to slow down (the film moves remarkably quick for a 164-minute historical drama), Lean allows for plenty of breathing room and development for the story, its themes and characters. He also gets terrific performances out of his impressive ensemble cast, the standouts being Banerjee, Ashcroft and, albeit to a lesser extent, Davis. Guinness, in a bit of controversial casting, is admirable as Godbole but the role is far too small to make the type of impact one would have expected from the late actor.
While I loved the film, I have to admit that it’s not quite in the same league as 1957’s Bridge on the River Kwai or 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia. I would put it at about the same, if slightly higher, level (due to stronger source material) as 1965’s Doctor Zhivago, with Lean’s altering of the story’s conclusion holding the film back just the slightest bit from obtaining the level of greatness that bestows his best work.
To be fair, the film’s ending does work in its own right, especially if you have never read Forster’s novel. But for those who have read the book (myself included), they may agree that Lean’s revised ending takes the edge off the relationship between Fielding and Aziz and the observations on racial relations that were carefully developed over the previous two and a half hours. One has to wonder what compelled Lean to alter the outcome, especially since he remained very faithful to the remainder of the novel.
A Passage to India was not only one of the last of the great old-school epics; it was also a fitting sign-off for one of the great cinematic storytellers of the twentieth century. Again and again, film fans bemoan that they just don’t make them like they used to. A Passage to India is one of those films that make that tired cliché true.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has been doing excellent work with bringing their catalog titles to the Blu-ray format, and the release of A Passage to India is no exception. Released to coincide with what would have been Lean’s 100th birthday (I wonder what he would have thought of today’s home theater technology), this disc does justice to the filmmaker’s final opus, while giving BD fans a lot of hope in regards to future Lean epics on the format.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer of the film in its theatrical ratio of 1.66:1 is rock solid, even more so in comparison to the original DVD release. For a film that is approaching 24 years of age, the print is in overall good shape despite the occasional nicks, scratches and dirt. The transfer has a film-like feel to it, complete with a level of grain that never becomes obtrusive. Colors are robust; picture detail is sharp while black and contrast levels are fine. Flesh tones were the only place of question with the transfer, with the faces of some actors tending to appear a bit on the orange side as opposed to others.
On the audio front, there are only two tracks: English and a French 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track. Taking the age of the picture into consideration once again, I thought it sounded quite strong. Center-channel dialogue is clear throughout, never sounding weak or tinny. There’s not a lot of bass to be had in this film, but I would never have expected a dialogue-driven period drama from the 1980s to have much in the first place. Left and Right fronts and surrounds are well-used albeit sporadically, mostly regulated to scenes that involve large crowds.
On the supplements front, Sony has assembled a solid selection for this presentation, and has even seen fit to include a Blu-ray exclusive in the mix as well. Considering that A Passage to India was probably the least popular of Lean’s oeuvre post-River Kwai, the supplements package appears even more impressive.
The feature-length Audio Commentary by producer Richard Goodwin is a very nice mix of anecdotes about the cast, shooting in India as well as the overall production. Considering that this film is probably one of the least covered productions of Lean’s later years as a filmmaker, I found this to be a very interesting track to.
There are seven featurettes on the disc that cover the film’s production. Six are new and are presented in 1080i/AVC MPEG-4 video, while one is presented in 480p/MPEG-2 4×3 standard definition. You have the option to either play them separately or all together.
The first featurette is ported over from the original DVD release, the eight-minute Reflections of David Lean. This short was a videotaped segment from a television interview done around the time of Passage’s theatrical release. In it, the late director discusses such topics as working with actors (including Guinness and William Holden), his directorial vision and the production. This is an interesting segment that is far too short for my liking. Any chance to hear someone like Lean discuss his craft is something worth giving more than eight minutes to.
The remaining half-dozen mini-docs make for a rather interesting look back on the production, which isn’t afraid to state that while it was an honor to work with Lean, it definitely was no walk in the park either. The featurettes are as follows.
E.M. Forster: Profile of an Author (6:55) is a brief look at the author, his life, the origins for the novel of “India” (his last full-fledged novel) as well as how he might have felt about Lean’s adaptation of his novel.
An Epic Takes Shape (10:55) features interviews with producer Goodwin, assistant directors Christopher Figg and Patrick Cadell as well as actors Nigel Havers, Richard Wilson and Art Malik.
An Indian Affair (13:38) deals with the production’s location shoot, including a look at the controversy of “creating” the Marabar caves, shooting in Kashmir, working with the locals and the cast and crews” difficulty of leaving the country behind when shooting was finished.
Only Connect: A Vision of India (10:34) looks at the remainder of the film’s shooting at Shepperton Studios in England, the post-production and the film’s Oscar nominations in 1985 (it won two: Supporting Actress and Original Score)
Casting A Classic (11:23) Casting director Priscilla John is interviewed along with Malik, Havers and James Fox about being cast in the film. Guinness” casting as a Hindu and his rather tumultuous relationship with Lean are examined, as well as the clashes that Victor Banerjee had with Lean over how to play Dr. Aziz.
David Lean: Shooting with the Master (13:23) closes out the short docs, which is a closer look at working with the filmmaker, who is remembered more as a technical director than he was an actor’s director (judging from his films, he seemed to do both equally well).
Next is a nice Blu-ray exclusive feature entitled Beyond the Passage: Picture-in-Graphics Track. When selected, this feature will move the movie into a corner of the screen and fill the remaining three-quarters with text about the film, the novel and the production (the movie returns to its normal position when the text is not onscreen).
Rounding out the supplements is a Promo for The David Lean Collection, which includes Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai as well as A Passage to India. Now before you get too excited, this promo is for the DVD editions of Lawrence and Kwai and the DVD and BD release of Passage. We all know, of course, that Sony will get around to releasing the other two Lean epics on BD, it’s just a matter of when that is the question.
Less stuffy and more compelling than some of the other cinematic adaptations of E.M. Forster’s work, A Passage to India was a fitting sendoff for one of the great cinematic storytellers of the twentieth century. Sony has put together a really nice Blu-ray special edition of the film that should please fans and tide Lean fanatics over until we get to the “really good stuff,” which hopefully should be within the next year or so.