As legend has it, incomparable director David Lean was so upset by the negative critical reaction to his 1970 'Ryan's Daughter' that he withdrew entirely from filmmaking for the next 14 years to sulk about it. This was a man who could hold a grudge. The project that finally brought him out of retirement, an adaptation of the E.M. Forster classic 'A Passage to India', would be his last. If perhaps not his greatest film (how could one ever top 'Lawrence of Arabia'?), the movie was undoubtedly an impressive return-to-form for the master, and was rewarded with numerous accolades, including Lean's seventh Oscar nomination for Best Director as well as a nomination for Best Picture and a win for Best Supporting Actress Peggy Ashcroft.
If there is such a thing, the film could be described as a minor epic, one that tells a small story painted on a broad canvas. An almost unrecognizably fresh-faced and wide-eyed Judy Davis stars as Adela Quested, a young Englishwoman of the 1920s on her first trip out of Britain, visiting India to be with her fiancé working as a magistrate there. Traveling with her is feisty Mrs. Moore (Ashcroft), the fiancé's elderly mother who freely speaks her mind with little regard for decorum. The two get along splendidly. Adela seeks adventure and desires to see the exotic wonders of India. Mrs. Moore is less spirited, but respects the culture and people of the land. Both are disappointed upon arrival to be shuffled off away from the real India and isolated within the strictly segregated British community living in the country, who disdain the local people and have attempted to recreate every element of their home as if they'd never left.
This tale of clashing cultures is complicated when Mrs. Moore and Adela, against the wishes of Moore's son and the stuffy Brits in their company, form a friendship with the affable Dr. Aziz, a young Indian man eager to introduce them to the glories of his country. Aziz arranges for a picnic at the distant Marabar Caves, a landmark of some spiritual significance in the mountains. Unfortunately, the trip goes disastrously wrong for all involved, and its outcome inadvertently sets off a political firestorm between the outraged Indian populace and the racist British powers in charge.
As with all of Forster's novels, 'Passage to India' is, at least in part, a story of manners and society, and the social boundaries drawn by class and race. As dramatized by Lean, the plot turns a little too preachy in its politics. It has some sudden shifts in character personalities that aren't sufficiently motivated -- the events at the caves were meant to be ambiguous in the book, which was undoubtedly a tricky proposition to depict on screen, and Lean hasn't quite captured it. The last act also feels deflated and the picture wraps up with an unsatisfying anti-ending.
Modern audiences will likely find more troublesome the casting of Alec Guinness painted up in brownface as the Indian character Professor Godbole. Even at the time, it was a controversial decision, if perhaps a bit more tolerable back in 1984. Thankfully, Guinness had the good sense to dial down the performance and avoid playing it broadly. The actor reportedly had grave reservations about taking the role and had to be talked into it by Lean. Honestly, if he weren't such a famous and recognizable British screen star, there isn't much in his portrayal to merit offense, though it does unavoidably grate.
In the film's favor, Lean mounted a stately production of the material, brought to life with lavish period detail and the director's exquisite visual sense. Despite its flaws, the movie tells a compelling story with intelligence and grace. The picture set the template for the many Merchant-Ivory adaptations of Forster's works to follow, and remains a standout in the literary period piece genre.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'A Passage to India' comes to Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Like most of the studio's product, the disc opens with an annoying Blu-ray promo. Apparently, nobody at the studio realizes that someone already watching a Blu-ray disc doesn't need to be sold on how great Blu-ray is.
Eschewing the wide Cinemascope grandeur of his most famous epics, David Lean opted to shoot 'A Passage to India' in a standard "flat" theatrical aspect ratio, allegedly to ensure that it would translate better to TV viewing. The Blu-ray is presented in a 1.66:1 European ratio, with small pillarbox bars on the sides of the 16:9 frame. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer has clearly undergone some restoration work since past home video editions, and looks very good for a Metrocolor production of the era.
The source elements have a little bit of instability, including flesh tones that occasionally waiver from pallid to pinkish. Otherwise, the picture has very nice color, detail, and texture. The individual beads of sweat on an actor's face are often strikingly visible. Being a Lean film, the photography is naturally quite gorgeous with stunning travelogue-style landscapes. The High-Def image has a great many scenes of excellent clarity.
On the downside, it appears that Sony has applied some artificial sharpening. Although edge halos aren't a problem, film grain often has a noisy electronic texture. Contrasts have also been boosted to give the video some extra pop, and the results can sometimes be a little hard on the eyes. Nevertheless, this is a fine-looking disc sure to please fans of the film.
I was less impressed with the sound quality, unfortunately. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack proves that even a lossless bit-for-bit technically perfect audio codec will always remain at the mercy of the master it's drawn from. While the results here are certainly not poor by any means, the source is clearly dated, and honestly I didn't much care for Sony's overzealous 5.1 remixing of the original 2-channel Dolby Stereo audio.
From the opening scene, it's obvious that too much of Maurice Jarre's score has been distractingly bled to the rear channels, as have too many sound effects. It sounds very gimmicky and artificial, not to mention that the back speakers are too loud and often drown out dialogue in the front soundstage. It leaves the track sounding unbalanced and hollow. Fortunately, the mixer must have eventually either come to his senses or gotten bored and given up, because things tone down after the first 45 minutes. Even so, fidelity is thin and the music a bit too strident. Some of the ADR work calls attention to itself, and the foley effects are frequently brittle. There is next to no low end activity, but I did appreciate the effective use of silence in many scenes. I'll also give credit to the neat echo effect in the caves.
For a movie from 1984, the soundtrack is fine, but I would have been less disappointed if Sony hadn't tinkered with it so much.
All of the bonus features from the comparable 2-Disc Collector's Edition DVD have made their way to the Blu-ray, here mostly presented in High Definition video.
If you really wanted to watch it again (who would?), the Blu-ray promo that plays before the menu can also be accessed from the supplement section.
Two years into the format's life, it's still a rare treat to get something other than science fiction or action movies on Blu-ray. 'A Passage to India' may not rise to quite the same level as David Lean's classic masterpieces 'Bridge on the River Kwai' or 'Lawrence of Arabia', but is a fine film and a treat to watch in High Definition. The Blu-ray has very good picture quality and a decent assortment of supplements, even if the audio is just acceptable. It is heartily recommended for the true film buffs out there