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Old 03-31-2009, 06:26 PM
David Lean's A Passage to India

A Passage to India (1984)

Here we have the final film of one of the greatest directors of all time, David Lean. Lean, of course, directed "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Lawrence of Arabia," and "Doctor Zhivago," or what I have come to call his "Big Three." He won two Academy Awards for directing "Lawrence" and "Kwai," and was nominated for five other directing Oscars, one of which was for this film. There's one thing you can always be sure of before watching a Lean film and that's that you are in for a dazzling feast for the eyes.

"A Passage to India" tells the story of Adela Quested (Judy Davis), who comes to India with Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) to get together with her boyfriend, Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers), who is a judge there during the time of Britain's colonization of India. Adela and Mrs. Moore wish to meet some of the people of India and are introduced to Dr. Aziz Ahmed (Victor Banerjee) and Professor Godbole (Alec Guinness).

They are quickly taken with Dr. Aziz. He suggests that they all go on a trip to some caves that have a reputation for being quite a site. During this trip, Adela and Dr. Aziz go off alone with the guide while Mrs. Moore and the servants wait on a lower part of the mountain containing the caves. A startling event happens leaving Adela scraped and bruised all over her body. A charge of rape is brought against Dr. Aziz, but due to his innocent nature, we assume him to be innocent....or do we?

This film certainly continues the tradition of Lean's films being visually stunning. If there's one thing Lean was good at (and there were many), it was bringing out the beauty of his landscapes, whether it be the Arabian desert, a P.O.W. camp in the middle of a jungle, or Russia at the time of revolution. Here, Lean and his cinematographer, Ernest Day, use India as a backdrop to bring E. M. Forster's novel of the same name to life. The landscapes are so rich and vibrant with colors that even Lean takes time out to just enjoy the beauty of the scenery by showing us everything with sweeping camera movements.

The weak points of this movie are contained entirely in the story itself. The first half of this epic (which runs at about 163 minutes) is merely a prologue to the second half where the real story begins. However, the first half is still very important for introducing the characters and letting us get to know them and their characteristics (this becomes important later on as we begin to judge whether or not Dr. Aziz could have done this horrible crime).

When the trial does finally come, the story feels as though it has settled into a firm plot, but after only a few scenes of the trial, it ends with a very anti-climactic realization. Later, we are given a somewhat speedy explanation as to how the whole trial could have come about, which felt a little anti-climactic itself. But this point is merely a suggestion of what could have happened.

The fact that we never see what happens in the caves is very important. It makes us question which of these characters are trustworthy. We may think we know what happened that day, but can we ever be incredibly sure? This leads us to think back to the conversation, which took place right before the incident, that Dr. Aziz and Adela were having regarding his wife and whether he loved her or not. This conversation could be seen as provocation, or a sign of a deeper problem locked away in Adela's mind.

She had already told Ronny once that she was not going to marry him, but then retracted the statement later. Perhaps she was putting words to her doubts that still lingered. The caves, with their seemingly endless echoing power, could have merely been echoing her own thoughts back to her. Whatever actually happened, all we are left to judge with is our feelings towards the characters.

The last 15 minutes of the film are taken to slowly wind it down. This could have been significant if it hadn't felt as though part of the ending was done for a small shock. We learn that one of the characters is getting married, and everyone assumes they know exactly who it is, but it turns out to be someone we haven't seen throughout the entire film, but just heard about. On top of that, there was the feeling that forgiveness was given out way too easily, but to go deeper into that would be to venture towards spoiler territory.

The performances for the most part were excellent, especially Victor Banerjee as Dr. Aziz. The one odd performance in the film came from Alec Guinness playing Professor Godbole. At some points he seemed to teeter back and forth between a Indian accent and an British accent, plus, it doesn't help that he doesn't look particularly Indian. Of the film's 11 Oscar nominations, it received two; one for Best Supporting Actress for Peggy Ashcroft, the other for Maurice Jarre's marvelous score. This film had the unfortunate luck of being nominated the same year as Milos Forman's brilliant masterpiece, "Amadeus," so unfortunately, it didn't have much of a chance of winning.

This is a fitting final film from David Lean, mainly because it is a great example of his ever-present love of film making. It shows the beauty of the settings, the intricacies of characters, and the skill of setting up each shot until he got exactly what he was looking for. He dared to make films that seemed almost unmakable and always managed to deliver something unforgettable. 3/4 stars.


R.I.P. Maurice Jarre (1924-2009), three-time Academy Award winning film composer for "Lawrence of Arabia," "Doctor Zhivago," and "A Passage to India." His work was pure genius and will never be forgotten.
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