After a fourteen year absence from the silver screen, David Lean vigorously attacked the challenge of adapting E.M. Forster's novel A Passage to India. What would be Lean's final film has much to recommend it: Lean's impeccable epic sensibility (expressed through gorgeous scenery and elegant compositions), a lush Maurice Jarre score, weighty themes, and an assured cinematic treatment of the most difficult problem of adaptation—the visual depiction of the mysterious incident at the Marabar Caves. But Lean's film presents challenges of its own: a directorially frustrated perfomance by Indian actor Victor Banerjee in a primary role and the inextricable, accurately perceived leaning (in opposition to Forster) to the British point of view.
Along those lines, there's also the matter of Lean's old-school casting of British icon Alec Guinness as "the inscrutable Brahman" Narayan Godbole. Lean's adaptation of Forster and the play version of the novel by Santha Rama Rau is clearly a labor of love (Lean would earn three of the film's eleven Oscar nominations, for writing, directing, and editing the film), and the film's stateliness has its own kind of old-world charm. Furthermore, it's not as if the story lacks sympathy for India under Britain's imperial rule—racism and hypocrisy and the wide gulf between the classes are all themes Lean clearly acknowledges.
The story, set in 1926, concerns Adela Quested (Judy Davis), who travels for the first time out of England in the company of her fiancé's mother, one Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft, who would win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar). The fiancé, a British magistrate in India named Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers), lives above it all, having as little contact with the natives as is possible. Miss Quested, however, shows a native curiosity; not content to sit around a country club, she accepts the invitations of Dr. Aziz H. Ahmed (Banerjee) to see more of the land, including the Marabar Caves. The caves represent the mysteries of existence and sexuality: a small dose of their echoes prompts "old soul" Mrs. Moore to reflect, "I suppose, like many old people, I sometimes think we are merely passing figures in a godless universe."
When Dr. Aziz and Miss Quested become separated from a group of travelers and then briefly from each other, accident, sexual fantasy, and reality converge to create the conditions for tragic misunderstanding. Aziz finds himself railroaded for rape, and Quested remains unsure what to do with herself, her personal erotic awakening having failed to materialize with one man and having guiltily imploded with another. The case becomes a cause célèbre and a rallying cry for the protest against imperialism. Dignitary Mr. Turton (Richard Wilson) invokes Kipling's old chestnut "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet," and he may be right, despite the efforts at friendship by Aziz and professor Richard Fielding (James Fox).
Unsettlingly, Lean encouraged Banerjee to play up his "Indian-ness" to a degree that sometimes approaches cartoonishness, while the director allowed Davis to underplay at a low simmer. Guinness acquits himself admirably as the exasperating philosophy professor whose seemingly superficial judgements and brusque manner belie a profound awareness, but his brownface is discomfiting by the late date of 1984 (Guinness and Lean had fielded similar criticism thirty-five years before when the actor played Fagin as a Semitic caricature in Lean's Oliver Twist). Despite such cause for hesitancy, Lean's visually appealing film frequently connects as a social satire and a mystical melodrama of transgressors looking for footholds in psychically threatening territory.
A terrific array of featurettes (1:15:08 with a "Play All" option) delves yet deeper. "Reflections of David Lean" (8:17) is a vintage interview with the director as he discusses William Holden, Alec Guinness, and A Passage to India. "E.M. Forster: Profile of an Author" (6:54, HD) allows King's College Cambridge professor Peter Jones to enlighten us about the English writer. "An Epic Takes Shape" (10:55) covers the building of sets and other preparations, with Goodwin, assistant directors Christopher Figg and Patrick Cadell, and actors Richard Wilson, Nigel Havers, and Art Malik. "An Indian Affair" (13:38) adds the recollections of casting director Priscilla John and actor James Fox, as the participants discuss dealing with locations, and the trials and joys of shooting in India.
"Only Connect: A Vision of India" (10:34) adds the perspective of Ann Firbank in the process of explaining the film's ongoing production back at England's Shepperton Studios, the subsequent editing of the film by Lean himself (in white gloves), the Oscars, and India being Lean's last film. B>"Casting a Classic" (11:23) covers what the title promises, including the difficulty of Judy Davis and odd casting of Guinness, an oft-estranged friend of Lean's, as an Indian man. Lastly, "David Lean: Shooting with the Master" (13:23) brings actor Saeed Jaffrey aboard as the participants describe Lean's method: how he wasn't good with actors but was brilliant technically, his short temper, his irritation with highlighters, and his strong visual sense (including detail orientation and sensitivity to color). Sony also includes two previews: "Blu-Ray Disc is High-Definition!" and "The David Lean Collection" (DVD).
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