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A PASSAGE TO INDIA
Collector's Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Judy Davis, Peggy Ashcroft, Victor Banerjee, James Fox, Nigel Havers, Alec Guinness
Director:  David Lean
Audio:  Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Sony
Features:  See Review
Length:  164 Minutes
Release Date:  April 15, 2008 

"Life rarely gives us what we want at the moment we deem appropriate.  Adventures do occur, but not punctually."

Film ***1/2

At the heart of A Passage to India is a mystery veiled by a strange natural phenomenon.  A young English woman ventures off into the mountains of India with a native escort to see the caves of Marabar, a vast network of caverns reputed to turn even the simplest of speech into an indecipherable cacophony of echoes.  She is later seen running away, scratched and bruised, in a fever, and unable to reveal what happened to her in that strange place.  Rape is immediately implied, and that implication will lead to a trial that will stand as the symbol of everything that is wrong about the relations between the Indians and the English.

Based on the novel by E. M. Forster, A Passage to India marked the final film in the distinguished career of British cinema giant David Lean.  The book, which caused quite a backlash against Forster when it was first published in 1924, serves as a springboard for a picture not so much about politics, but about themes of sexual repression and the misplacement of civilized ideals in the natural world. 

In that regard, it reminded me very much of one of my favorite films, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.  Both movies center around a mystery of nature and its effect on British outsiders in a foreign land.  In both cases, there were suggestions of sexual repression:  the virginal schoolgirls in Picnic wander off onto the mountain never to be seen again.  The leading lady of Passage learns at a pivotal moment before entering the caves that she does not love the man she came to India to marry.

But it’s hard to ignore the way the caves beckon to Adela Quested (Davis) even upon her arrival in India with her mother-in-law to be, Mrs. Moore (Ashcroft, in an Oscar winning performance).  At the station, the very epicenter of modernization in a ‘civilized’ world, she looks up to see pictures of Marabar, and finds herself asking about them.

The world of British ruled India in the 1920s awaits her, as does her fiancé, the local magistrate Ronny Heaslop (Havers).  There are tensions, to be sure:  the British government dominates business and commerce in India, and even matters of law and justice.  This is going to come into serious play later on in the story.

The class rule is that the English and the Indians do not mix socially, but there are, as always, a few exceptions.  Dr. Aziz (Banerjee) is a charming and learned man, who catches the favor of both Adela and Mrs. Moore.  He suggests an outing to the caves, mainly as a way of keeping them from coming to his meager home (which paled in comparison to the rich British socialite way of living).  Against the wishes of her fiancé and other members of the English upper crust, both ladies agree to go.

It is during their excursion that the surreal and never-fully-explained event takes place.  We’re never sure exactly what happened in the cave, but the mystique of it has no bearing on what happens afterwards:  Dr. Aziz is accused of the rape of Adela, and will be forced to stand trial in a British dominated court.  Outraged Indian citizens know there can only be one outcome for a trial where an Indian man is accused of raping an English woman.  Tensions increase to a boiling point.

And what of Adela, who emerged from the caves in such a hysterical state that she couldn’t even speak?  We are told she has made the accusation against Aziz, but we do not have the benefit of hearing it from her own lips.  She will be made to take the stand in the trial and recount what happened on that ill fated excursion.

What is just as interesting to me as the mystery of the caves is a subtle point that might easily be lost in the mix:  earlier in the movie, we’ve witnessed an equally strange event that’s easy to forget about in light of the trial:  Adela ventures off by herself on a bicycle, and comes upon what appears to be the ruins of a pagan temple in the jungle.  She is mesmerized by the statues and their depictions of sexually explicit poses.  The scene is oddly quiet, and we witness on her face a sense of awakening, so intense that neither she nor we immediately see the threat that has awakened in this natural setting and leaves her fleeing for her life.

One might consider, then, that this same scenario repeats itself at the caves:  Adela later recounts that while viewing the city from such a great distance, she realized she didn’t love Ronny, and that inspired her to ask Dr. Aziz personal questions about his relationship with his deceased wife.  Again, there is a sense of awakening from repression, and again, she picks the wrong place to experience it, as the natural world seems poised to destroy her for it.  In many films, Picnic at Hanging Rock included, sexual repression is thematically linked to disappearance.  Adela does not disappear in body, but something of her has been taken away, leaving her with no clear memory of the events of the cave.

This is a sumptuously filmed movie, the kind fans of David Lean have come to expect.  He lovingly photographs his natural settings with equal senses of awe and respect, and he brings the world of India to cinematic life as though we were viewing it through a telescope and a microscope at the same time:  the images are larger than life, yet minutely detailed.  It is a world the viewer can get lost in for the duration of the picture.

Yet I should point out, in fairness, that this is not a perfect movie.  It suffers a bit from its length, particularly in the amount of time it takes to actually get the audience to the key points of the story, and a bit of excess at the end when it is time to close up.  Though there was plenty to enjoy throughout, I couldn’t help but feel a little more tightening and trimming could have benefited the movie greatly, giving it a better rhythm and a more direct sense of purpose, without Lean having to sacrifice his sense of visual wonder.

Still, there is plenty to love about A Passage to India, as a gorgeous period film wrapped around a surreal and disturbing event.  Though it may not merit mention alongside movies like Lawrence of Arabia or The Bridge on the River Kwai, this is still a remarkable cinematic achievement, and a worthy send off to one of the art form’s most prolific directors.

Video ****

The best and easiest compliment I can give this anamorphic transfer is that it looks like a brand new film.  At no point does the image let on that the picture is 24 years old, or a film from one of the most problematic periods in terms of film preservation, the 1980s.  This is a breathtakingly beautiful offering from Sony that serves Lean’s remarkable visuals as well as could be hoped for.  The colors are rich, plentiful, natural looking and astounding throughout, with no distortion or grain to interfere with the presentation.  Images are sharp and clear throughout, even in low light settings, and the disc suffers from no shimmering, break-up or other evidences of compression.  The print itself is in remarkable condition…off the top of my head, I can’t remember noticing anything along the lines of significant spots or scars.  This is a reference quality transfer all the way.

Audio ***

The disc features newly remastered 5.1 sound.  The scenes in the cave, as well as later audio flashbacks to the echoing desperately called for some discreet signals, and with this collector's edition release, we finally get them.  The dialogue is easily understood, and Maurice Jarre’s unusual but Oscar winning score plays beautifully.  The overall track is just a tad thin sounding, with limited dynamic range and not much bass, but these are all only minor issues that don’t affect the enjoyment of the film one way or the other.

Features ***

The disc contains a commentary with producer Richard Goodwin and seven featurettes, including ones on E. M. Forster, David Lean, India and the making of the film.

Summary:

A Passage to India is a beautifully filmed period piece with an intriguing story that rises well above one or two inconsequential flaws to serve as a worthwhile last film from David Lean.  With this remarkably gorgeous collector's edition DVD offering from Sony, all true film fans should definitely seek this one out.

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