Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Passage to India (1984)

A Passage to IndiaThis is a magnificent and exquisitely wrought film, well nuanced and faithful in its adaptation of E.M. Forster's classic novel of the same name. Director David Lean, who had previously directed such cinematic triumphs as "Bridge on the River Kwai" and "Lawrence of Arabia", outdid himself with this film, which was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and for which Peggy Ashcroft won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, as did Maurice Jarre for Best Score.

Set in 1928 colonial India, it is a story about racism and love. A headstrong and adventurous Englishwoman, Adela Quested (Judy Davis) travels to India to meet her fiance. She is accompanied on her journey by her fiance's elderly mother, Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft), a lovely and kindly woman who, upon reaching India, is appalled at the treatment of the native Indian populace by her own countrymen. She eventually makes the acquaintance of a very nice Indian man, Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee), who is surprised at being treated as a sentient human being by this Englishwoman. During a social ocassion, in which the usual class boundaries were set aside, he again meets the delightful Mrs. Moore and is introduced to Adela Quested. Enthused by being treated as an equal, he gets carried away and invites them to be his guests on an excursion he can ill afford to a well known, but remote tourist spot, the Marabar caves.

It is a hot day and a long journey to these mysterious caves, and Dr. Aziz and Ms. Quested are thrown together more than they ordinarily would have been, setting the stage for a fateful and strange turn of events, one that would have great personal, as well as political, impact on the parties concerned. It is a collision of East and West and makes for a definitive statement about the nature of the relationship between the native Indian population and the British colonialists. It is a relationship that makes itself most manifest during the telling courtroom scenes, making it a film to be remembered.

This is a very well acted and compelling film, a sterling tribute to David Lean's directorial talents. In this, his last cinematic triumph, Lean leaves a legacy to be remembered, having exacted wonderful performances from the star studded cast, including James Fox, Alec Guinness, and Nigel Havers. Victor Banerjee is especially compelling as the put upon, well meaning Dr. Aziz, while Peggy Ashcroft gives a sensitive and well nuanced performance as the humane and soft hearted Mrs. Moore. Judy Davis is excellent as the conflicted Ms. Quested.

The DVD itself is first rate, offering crystal clear visuals that do justice to the breathtaking cinematography. Coupled with crisp sound, this DVD ensures one's viewing pleasure. It is one well worth having in one's collection.

When David Lean's "A Passage to India" opened in 1984, some saw it as a showdown between the glory days of literate epic filmmaking and the "feel-good" ethos of the Lucas/Spielberg popcorn juggernauts. Who better than the director of "Lawrence of Arabia," "Doctor Zhivago" and "Bridge on the River Kwai" to show the film school grads how to make a movie? As always, anything burdened by such mythic expectations is bound to fail ("Phantom Menace" anyone?) Sadly, I joined the chorus of detractors lamenting "Passage" as a poor shadow of the "Leanscapes" that catapulted "Lawrence" and "Zhivago" into film history.

Amazing how age softens perspective. A fresh viewing of "Passage," courtesy of Columbia TriStar Home Video's new DVD, reveals an eloquent adaptation of E.M. Forster's complex novel about British colonialism in 1928 India and the cultural and sensual abysses that separate men and women, English and Indian, sensualist and ascetic.

"Passage" tells the story of Adela Quested (Judy Davis) en route to India to visit her fiancé, Ronny Heslop (Nigel Havers). Traveling with Heslop's mother, Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft, in an Oscar-winning performance), Adela arrives in the city of Chandrapore to find an alien environment, yet evocative in a way she cannot fathom. Mrs. Moore is similarly captivated by India, but is less than admiring of the treatment of the Indians by their colonial masters, i.e. her peers. One night, Mrs. Moore visits an abandoned mosque. There, she encounters local physician Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee). At first he charges her with blasphemy, entering a holy place improperly. When she assures him that she showed due respect by removing her shoes before entering, the two strike a friendship that might signal some understanding between the two cultures.

At a lunch party given by British teacher Richard Fielding (James Fox), who does not share his countrymen's disrespect for India, Adela meets Aziz for the first time while Mrs. Moore and Fielding converse about metaphysics with Professor Godbole (Alec Guinness, donning yet another disguise for Lean), a Brahmin mystic. Adela is fascinated by Aziz's juggling of their two societies. In an effort to impress Adela and fit in as more of an Englishman, Aziz impulsively calls for an expedition to the mysterious Marabar caves outside town.

What at first seems (to both sides) a breach of etiquette turns sinister when Aziz is accused by Adela of attempting to rape her during a visit to one of the caves. Now seen as a political tool by both sides, Aziz's trial threatens to escalate resentment into outright bloodshed. As everyone tries to solve the riddle of what really happened, Aziz and Adela must find some way to break away from the societal and cultural maelstroms threatening their freedom.

Adhering closely to the Forster novel, Lean's screenplay adaptation finds greater interest (and rightly so) in the circumstances that led to the incident as well as the aftermath. Davis' Adela is repressed and cloistered comfortably within British society. Both Aziz and India arouses her, awakening sensual feelings capable of enlightenment...or destruction. Lean visualizes this conflict with a scene not in the book. When Adela goes bicycling outside the city (Chapter 8), she comes across the ruins of an ancient temple. Almost voyeur-like, she spies the numerous statues of couples having sex. Adela herself almost reaches a fever pitch when wild monkeys literally expel her from their feral sanctuary. The lack of respect that Adela showed in her judgment is a direct contrast to Mrs. Moore's deference when she enters the mosque and meets Aziz. Yet Lean gave us the conflict in purely visual terms, no less grand than the match-to-sunrise jump cut in "Lawrence" or the endless icy tundras of "Zhivago. "Passage" proved a worthy valediction to Lean's career. Between directing, scripting and editing the film, we see Lean in complete command in his storytelling faculties. Even the final scene, straight out of the book, works better in the film than on the page.

The transfer also succeeds on every level. The 1.85 anamorphic image is rock solid and sharp throughout the presentation. (Politics at the time forced Lean to shoot the film in the more TV-friendly 1.85 aspect ratio instead of the wider 2.35 Cinemascope format. Back in 1984, this compromise seemed outrageous. Again, after watching the film, I found Lean's "flat" framing just as carefully composed as anything on his ultra-wide canvas.) The source materials are in terrific shape, as there are no blemishes and defects visible. Colors are rich and vivid but natural. Deep blacks and careful contrast control provide excellent detail delineation. Digital and compression artifacts are completely absent.

The Dolby Surround audio plays adequately; to be expected as the sound mix is not particularly flashy to begin with. Maurice Jarre's score, which weaves Hindu music with Cole Porter-esque rhythm, never overpowers the dialogue or sound effects. Surround channel activity is relegated primarily to music fill. French and Spanish mono tracks are also available on the disc.

The main perk of the special features is a section entitled "Reflections on David Lean." While the title implies a testimonial to David by his peers, it's actually an eight-minute collection of soundbites, shot on video, from David about the making of "Passage" and some thoughts about such collaborators as William Holden and Alec Guinness. There's no identification of the source or circumstances of the observations, but he's never less than fascinating when talking about the difficulties of shooting in India or how Forster wouldn't let grant the movie rights because he "distrusted filmmaking."

Trailers from "Lawrence of Arabia," "Bridge on the River Kwai," and "Guns of Navarone" appear on the disc, mirroring the same trailers available on the "Lawrence" DVD. Again, no "Passage" trailer (Did Columbia not create one back in '84?) The trailers are letterboxed with decent audio and video.

Check out "A Passage to India." A thoughtful, quiet gem awaits you.

Buy A Passage to India (1984) Now

Very interesting examination of English and Indian attitudes about themselves and each other in 1920's India. The English that reside in India may start off as decent folk with the feeling that they are in the business of improving India and some are. Most however merely see the India venture as an employment opportunity and once there merely carry on being English and force their English ways and rules on Indians whom they demean in the process. Lean presents the stereotypical English administrators and their wives as a rather unappealing bunch of snobs who only become more prejudice the longer they stay on. India is seen by them to be a muddle in need of their administrative and civilizing skills. The Indians of course see things quite differently. British snobbery and decorum prevents any social mixing with the Indians they rule so its no surprise they don't understand the people whose country they are in.

Judy Davis and her fiances mother arrive in India and find the stringent social norms to be revolting. They immediately want to meet Indians and learn about the place they are in from the Indians whom they treat like polite hosts. When they do begin socializing with the Indians however trouble follows. The incident in the Marabar caves is brought on by the uneasy combination of English repression and Indian sensuality which is everywhere on display in the temples and statuary. The "incident" is the central mystery to the movie and I won't spoil it for you but during the trial that follows the true nature of the relationship between the ruling English and the subject race is made painstakingly clear to all. Excellent and competent and compressed presentation of the Forster novel which also relies on a stage version of the book. Many ripe lines throughout that stay in your mind and crystallise each characters personality as well as the overall situation quite succinctly. And as always with Lean great views from every window. Judy Davis is especially impressive as she can go from pale and mousy to red lipped seductress with just a slight change of expression and posture. Alec Guinnes plays "the inscrutable Brahmin" but the only thing inscrutable about him is that he is English and cast as a holy Indian, a misstep that wouldn't fly in todays politicized world. Other than that great cast. James Fox especially likable as the good teacher Fielding.

Read Best Reviews of A Passage to India (1984) Here

Sometimes, what you don't see can be of equal importance to what you do see in a film. David Lean's film is no exception ... but more on that later.

A film of epic quality, it follows two travelers on their journey from England to India during the Raj colonial period of the 1920s. For Adela Quested, it's her first time out of England to anywhere. For Mrs. Moore, it's a chance to visit her son, Ronny, who is expected to marry Adela during the visit. But, their visit is not without incident.

What both Adela and Mrs. Moore discover is an India ruled by British bureaucrats (Ronny being one of them, a city magistrate) who exude personal and cultural superiority over Indians. This was a shock to them since they both expected to find Indians and Britons meeting socially and on friendly terms. The only exception to that rule appears to be Fielding, principal of a college.

Through Fielding, Adela is introduced to Professor Godbole (a Hindu holy man) and Dr. Aziz (a Muslim physician) socially. Mrs. Moore met Aziz in a previous scene but had not yet met Godbole until that moment. One note on that (a film flaw). During that mosque scene where Mrs. Moore meets Dr. Aziz, Aziz never once mentions his name to her ... yet later, Adela knows his name as mentioned to her by Mrs. Moore. Perhaps his name was mentioned in a brief scene that ended up on the cutting-room floor. But, that omission is trivial and in no way detracts from the enjoyment of the film.

During this social introduction, Aziz invites Mrs. Moore and Adela on a journey to the Marabar caves, a tourist destination. On the trip, and tired from all the activity, Mrs. Moore stays at the encampment near the lower caves and encourages Aziz and Adela to explore the higher caves alone.

Then, something happened ... and I won't tell you what (grin). Suffice it to say that Aziz finds himself in police custody. A court trial ensues that pits culture against culture, race against race, and clearly demonstrates the differences in attitudes between resident British citizens and Indians. But the trial's climax isn't the most moving part of the film. Lean has risen the film's denouement to a higher level ... one that leaves you smiling and crying at the same time. But what Lean does NOT mention in the film is equally interesting.

In today's world, India is beset by inter-sect angst between Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and persons of other faiths. In theory, this inter-sect rivalry has been around since before India became a British colony. But, this rivalry was not mentioned once in the film. It is perhaps a testament to the novelist (E.M. Forster) and Lean to realize a potent underlying force in the story ... that British colonial rule held these rivalries in abeyance ... uniting Indians of all faiths into a common bond that eventually forced colonialism to end in India.

The film is a masterpiece on every level and remains one of my favorites of all time.

P.S. Closing comment to those (like me) who own region-free DVD players that render both PAL and NTSC DVDs. For some reason unknown to me, it's over $10 cheaper to buy the DVD from Amazon.co.uk than it is from Amazon.com ... even after overseas shipping is added in. That's where I ordered mine (from the UK).

Want A Passage to India (1984) Discount?

"Passage to India" was one of the greatest films produced in the Reagan era. It also happens to be the final film of one of cinema's most honered craftsmen, Sir David Lean, who is considered by many to be the greatest British director of all-time. This film may not be on the level of his other 70mm epics such as "Bridge on the River Kwai" and "Lawrence of Arabia" in terms of sweeping scope, but it more than holds its own. Produced in an era where apartheid in South Africa was the hot political issue, this film deals realistically with the occupation of the english in India. Not so much the political occupation, but how the two culture relate to each other through the eyes of the films two lead characters beautifully played by Judy Davis and Victor Banerjee. A film which does not give you the answers, but encourages you to draw your own conclusion in regards to the charcters (espeically Davis' Adela Quested) motivations. Now how does the DVD look? The transfer is beautiful, the best I've ever seen this film presented since it opened back in Dec, 1984. There are no distracting compression artifacts or nasty layer switches. The dolby stereo surround track is clear and ambient with no drop-outs, so a 5.1 upgrade would've been unnecessary for this film. If you enjoy striking visuals and English literature brought to vivid life through film, Passage is a must-have. My highest recommendation.

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