A Passage To India Review
Was there ever a greater decline in a director than that seen in David Lean's career ? From the superbly controlled poignancy of Brief Encounter and the sheer cinematic genius of the two Dickens adaptations to mediocre epic sludge like Lawrence of Arabia and the mind-numbingly dreadful Doctor Zhivago in 20 years is some kind of miracle in reverse. Lean's retirement (in high dudgeon) after the well deserved critical flak that greeted the awful Ryan's Daughter ended in 1984 with the release of A Passage To India. This adaptation of E.M.Forster's novel was generally covered in praise, much of it deserved since it marks a return to some of the elements which made Lean's early films so marvellous. It's far from perfect, and in some ways it's not even very good, but it's an honourable piece of filmmaking which manages to tell a good story and showcase some marvellous performances without too many gratuitous picture postcard landscapes or too much pseudo-epic posing from the director.
The film follows the book reasonably closely while actually being very different in style and tone. Miss Adela Quested (Davis), a young English woman, goes to India to meet her fiancé, Ronnie Heslop (Havers), accompanied by Ronnie's mother Mrs Moore (Ashcroft). Upon arriving, she is shocked by the attitude of the colonial government towards the Indians, which is distant at best and demeaning at worst. Determined to see something of the 'real India', Adela - actively encouraged by Mrs Moore - becomes friendly with a local medical man Dr Aziz (Banerjee) who regards her as the embodiment of all the good things he had heard about England before he had the unpleasant experience of being governed by the worst kind of Englishmen. Aziz, embarrassed by his basic accommodation, suggests that he and the few English people who will associate with him - Adela, Mrs Moore, a local teacher Fielding (Fox) - go on a picnic to the local Marabar Caves. This impractical suggestion actually becomes a reality, thanks to Aziz's friends rallying around to provide assistance, and the trip duly takes place. But disaster occurs when Adela goes missing and, some time later, is found in a state of disarray and badly scratched. Hysterical and exhausted, she accuses Aziz of having raped her. The British establishment closes ranks and Aziz's guilt or innocence becomes largely irrelevant.
It's important to distinguish Forster's "A Passage To India" from Lean's film. Both tell roughly the same story but Forster is interested in the numerous ways in which truth can be perceived and the fact that a single event can be disputed by everyone involved until the 'truth' becomes an abstraction. Lean isn't really interested in this although he does make a brave attempt to give a haze of uncertainty to the central scene at the Caves - basically he wants to tell a story about British injustice and turns Aziz into the innocent victim of a morally bankrupt establishment and a sexually hysterical virgin. Actually, this isn't a bad way to adapt the novel since although it blurs Forster's brilliant ambiguity, it does bring to the fore the writer's utter contempt for colonialism and the tenuous legality of British rule in India. But he tidies up the novel too much which is disappointing - if inevitable - because it's the complex, sometimes sprawling and annoying but undeniably brilliant nature of the book which makes it a work of greatness, far more so than more carefully arranged novels such as "A Room With A View" or "Where Angels Fear To Tread". Lean's literal-mindedness worked brilliantly for Dickens but doesn't suit Forster - it didn't suit Pasternak either, come to think of it and it turned into high comedy during Ryan's Daughter.
Yet... somehow, A Passage For India works very well indeed, far better than any Lean film since Summertime. The first real surprise is his feel for the material. In real life a reactionary conservative, Lean seems to understand the Indian rage over their colonial masters and the ethical compromises which are inevitable in such a situation. He presents this in a vivid and unambiguous way which is very powerful and the sense of historical inevitability is unforced and insightful. This comes straight from the book but it's an example of a director taking something from his source and making it central to the narrative. He also shares Forster's intellectual, aesthetic and emotional delight at the strangeness of India, a culture which is totally alien to that of Britain despite the attempts of the British to turn it into a carbon copy of their home environment. The second, even more welcome surprise is that Lean has finally managed to return to the virtue of his best films, namely characters talking together in a believable way without being framed against vast landscapes or surrounded by thousands of extras. Some of the best moments are small and intimate - Adela, Aziz and Professor Godbole (Guinness) discussing religion, Mrs Moore encountering Aziz in a moonlit mosque - and Lean pulls off tiny little details with an élan I thought he had totally lost. The moment with Fielding and Aziz's collar stud - later commented upon by Ronnie - is a beautiful touch of business which sums up many of the concerns of the story.
In this latter achievement, Lean is helped immeasurably by his cast. Considering how badly some of his films have fallen down on miscasting - Robert Mitchum as a shy schoolmaster ? Omar Sharif as anything ? - it's no small feat that there's only one major misstep here. To deal with this first, Alec Guinness is totally wrong in this film. He browns up and does his comedy Indian with his usual skill but we don't need him here when there are thousands of Indian actors who could have done the part just as well. Since Guinness felt this as well, only appearing after Lean begged him to, I don't feel too bad about dismissing his work here as an aberration. Much better to concentrate on some of the superb work done by the rest of the cast. Peggy Ashcroft is superbly right as Mrs Moore. In the book, the character is a bit vague, more of an idea than a person, but Ashcroft turns the woman into a believable and wholly sympathetic creation who embodies decency as surely as she embodies an idealised version of a wise old lady. It's a cliché, but Ashcroft refuses to be sentimental. Her Mrs Moore is hard as nails and quick to judge people, a woman whose wrong side you would not like to be on. Her stare, full of righteous indignation and bitter experience, is intense and uncomfortable. James Fox is just right as the honest if a little ineffectual Fielding and it's hard to believe this is the same man who created the demonic Chas in Performance. In smaller roles, Richard Wilson and Michael Culver are horribly realistic colonial administrators, and Nigel Havers - as bland an actor as I can think of - is fine as the utterly dislikeable Ronnie. But the real stars of the film are Victor Banerjee and Judy Davis. Banerjee, a prolific Indian actor who has had a limited career in English language films, is brilliant as Dr Aziz because he doesn't just play a martyred victim of British imperialism. His Aziz is funny and sympathetic but also, later in the film, angry and cynical. When he explodes with rage at Fielding, it's intimidating because it seems to come from within the character rather than just for the sake of a melodramatic plot development. His wide eyes, alive with curiosity and misplaced optimism, embody some kind of hope for better and when they begin to narrow with suspicion and frustration you realise the toll that events have had on the man. Judy Davis is equally good as Adela, particularly given that the role is virtually impossible to play. Adela goes through so many character changes that most actresses would find one aspect to play and leave it there. To her credit, Davis isn't willing to stop there and, instead, fumbles around inside the character trying to understand her. She gets halfway there and sometimes seems to be getting even further but isn't quite able to because the mechanics of the trial towards the end overcome her. As Judy Davis is one of the finest actresses of her generation - if you don't believe me watch her in Husbands and Wives - this is probably down to the script. Her very final scene is a clinker but it's a a well-intentioned one and it manages to be touching despite being hopelessly predictable and, psychologically, rather stale.
As you would expect from Lean, the film is sumptuously produced with masses of carefully composed location shooting. No-one could accuse him, even in his worst films, of not putting the money up there on the screen. Some of the images of India are extraordinarily well composed, notably a shot of a train dwarfed by an awesome grey-blue sky. But the problem here, as so often in his later films, is that the photography tends towards the scenic rather than the atmospheric. Ernest Day was the cinematographer and he's clearly trying to do a Freddie Young and impress us with the space and scale of another country. The images are occasionally evocative and sometimes even work in terms of character and action - but any cameraman who couldn't produce similar results given the natural miracle of moonlight on the Ganges wouldn't be worth discussing. A distinguished editor prior to becoming a director, Lean did the editing himself and it shows in the somewhat stately pacing. This film isn't as turgid as Dr Zhivago - not many films are - but it tends to proceed in a magisterial style that was old fashioned in 1984 and is now positively antediluvian. I'm not complaining about slow pace in itself by the way - I'm a fully paid-up admirer of Tarkovsky for one thing - but pacing which is self-consciously slower than it has to be. To make a simplistic comparison, Tarkovsky's pace is intentionally slow to allow the viewer to take in images which become profound due to being concentrated upon for minutes at a time; Lean's is slow because judging by his later films, he seems to think that a fast pace would be vulgar and make the film less of an 'event'. This is even more conspicuous if you watch Great Expectations straight afterwards - as I did - where a similarly complex book is rendered in a fast but completely lucid and fiercely intelligent manner.
But one has to come back to the virtues of the film which are sufficient to make it one of Lean's most impressive later works. He is faithful to the pattern of the book and his additions are generally worthwhile; the best of them being Adela's bike ride to an ancient temple where she is shocked by sexual icons and harassed by an aggressive group of monkeys. Although this does stack the deck against her and in favour of Aziz - presumably intentionally - it's a well directed scene which has as much shock value as the first meeting with Magwitch in Great Expectations. In moments like this and, later, in the suspenseful courtroom confrontations, Lean forgets his good manners and begins to seem like a contemporary director rather than a musty old relic. Whether this improvement would have continued, had he been able to direct Nostromo is a moot point - I somehow doubt it given the amount of scope allowed by Joseph Conrad for static appreciation of landscapes - but it's nice to be able to give Lean credit for another good film to go with the best of his early work.
Some of Lean's films are now available in sumptuous Special Editions - sadly, the most lavish are wasted on his least interesting films - but MGM have given A Passage To India just the basic back catalogue treatment.
Luckily, the transfer is a good one. The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and the transfer is anamorphic. The colours are the immediately impressive element here since they are satisfyingly rich with particularly startling reds and blues. Contrast is excellent and there are few artifacts to be seen. Nor is grain a problem. This is a very good quality visual presentation.
The original Dolby Stereo soundtrack has been remixed into Dolby Digital 5.1. I'm, not really very keen on these remixes since they tend to put the balance between dialogue, music and ambient or foley effects out of balance. This isn't that bad but you do wonder why they bothered since it's not an especially eventful 5.1 soundtrack. The dialogue spreads across the front channels and there isn't a great deal of action from the surrounds except during crowd scenes. The sub woofer is used sparsely but effectively on a couple of occasions. It should however be said that Maurice Jarre's pleasantly middle of the road music score sounds gorgeous on this track.
The only extra is the theatrical trailer. This is so ludicrously portentous as to lead one to think that it must at the very least be announcing the death of a major royal rather than the new film by a director who hadn't done anything worth watching for nearly thirty years. The brief interview with Lean that's featured on the R1 is not present. There are 16 chapter stops and a range of subtitles.
A Passage to India is far from being a great film. But it is a very good one and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as other second-rank Lean movies like Summertime or This Happy Breed. The DVD offers a good transfer but little else. It's worth considering if you like the film or literary adaptations in general though, especially as you can pick it up on the internet for a relatively low price.