A Passage to India (1984) dir. David Lean
Starring: Judy Davis, Victor Bannerjee, Peggy Ashcroft, James Fox, Alec Guiness
“A Passage to India” marked David Lean’s return to the big screen after a 14 year hiatus/semi-retirement. His previous film “Ryan’s Daughter” (1970) was a commercial and critical flop, perhaps this bad press stunned him into a creative daze. “A Passage to India” is more than just a respectable comeback film especially for a 76 year old man. It’s a gorgeous film full of the magic, intrigue and romance and spectacle.
The film begins as a story of Adela Quested (Judy Davis), who comes to India looking for an escape from her drab life in England. She is seduced by the exoticness and the sensual mysteries of India and soon finds herself on the path to finding love with a handsome Indian Dr. Aziz (Victor Bannerjee). Lean plays these emotions with precise skill. Her discovery of the Kama Sutra statues is key and her voyage with Aziz to the Marabar caves agitates her hormones. A consummated relationship never blossoms, instead her fear of the unknown and fear of love manifests itself in the mysterious occurrence in the cave. Adela emerges from the caves scratched, bruised and beaten and accuses the kind an unassuming Dr. Aziz of rape.
The film takes a sharp turn in a more conventional direction (and unfortunately lessons the impact of the film). The final act is a courtroom drama in the traditional witness-defense-prosecution format. It's a shame because this sucks much of the elegance and lyricism out of the film. The film then becomes a story about Aziz andhis friend Fielding (James Fox) who stands by Aziz despite all the accusations against him. Adela is essentially discarded from the film. The finale which features Fielding visiting Aziz years in the future and reconciling their own personal conflicts.
A hallmark of David Lean, especially the “epic period” of his career, is his choice of locations. The setting of his films become as important as his characters. “Bridge on the River Kwai” though set in Burma was shot in the jungles of Ceylon; In “Lawrence of Arabia” Lean took his camera to the uncompromising but beautifully pristine Arabian desert, even “Ryan’s Daughter’, though flawed, shot Ireland like no other film has done before or since. In “A Passage to India”, it’s ‘David Does India.’ Like these previously films Lean places his characters against some of the most awesome vistas we’ve seen from India.
The centrepiece sequence is Adela’s journey to the caves. We see lengthy shots of the most beautiful rock formations in the background with a parade of elephants traversing the land in the foreground. This journey leads up to the key scene in the film when Adela experiences a mystical presence in the cave.
Other hallmarks of Lean are his music and editing. The familiar swoon of Maurice Jarre’s music is in the film as well – though for the most part he's kept it subtle and indistinct compared the grand scores he created for Lean in the past. Lean serves as sole editor on the film - his first credit as such since 1942. Lean was a seasoned pictured editor in the 30's before moving to directing in the 40's. He also pioneered some new editing techniques in the 1960’s for example, using straight cuts instead of dissolves to show passage of time. Lean performs well despite the 40 years in between editing assignments.
Though the film does not elevate itself to the level of masterpiece, and certainly not near the resonating quality of “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Doctor Zhivago”, it’s a great last film from one of cinema’s truly great ‘masters’. Not many other master directors can claim a last film as good as Lean’s. Enjoy.