A PASSAGE TO INDIA
Review by Michael Jacobson
Davis, Peggy Ashcroft, Victor Banerjee, James Fox, Nigel Havers, Alec Guinness
Director: David Lean
Audio: Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
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."
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.