There had been so much talk about a possible Blu-ray of "Lawrence of Arabia" that it's almost a surprise that "A Passage to India" becomes the first David Lean film to make it to the new format. At 164 minutes, "Passage" is about as lean as the director's epics get--far shorter than "Lawrence" (216 minutes) and "Doctor Zhivago" (197 minutes), and only moments longer than "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (161 minutes). But none of these films feels interminably long, and that's because Lean has an uncanny ability to mesmerize audiences with the landscape and local life, while offering characters so complex and richly drawn that they also command our attention.
That's certainly the case here, where location footage of Karnataka and Ramanagaram, India conveys the exhuberant ambivalence the colorful-but-impoverished country felt in the 1920s toward their British occupiers. Though there were anti-colonial stirrings, there was also admiration for the British and their lifestyle, which is here personified by Dr. Aziz H. Ahmed (Victor Banerjee). Dr. Aziz embraces the British and their way of speaking and dressing. When he has a chance meeting at a mosque with an older British woman named Mrs. Moore (Dame Peggy Ashcroft), he jumps at the chance to show her and her soon-to-be daughter-in-law, Adela Quested (Judy Davis), the "real" India. In the process, of course, Aziz is show the "real" British when his outing precipitates a personal and political disaster.
It turns out that there was a reason why all the local Brits advised the two women that India is best experienced at arm's length. But Dr. Aziz is so charming and arranges a trip far beyond his means to have a picnic at Marabar Caves that the women are enthralled. Before long, a gigantic caravan wends its way by train and other vehicles to this place where the sun and confusion and uncertainty over the fiancé (Nigel Havers), a local magistrate, all comes to a boil.
Based on the novel by E.M. Forster, "A Passage to India" does a fine job of conveying the complicated attitudes of the British and their colonial subjects and manages to deal with issues of racism every bit as subtly as Forster. What the characters really feel, deep in their confused hearts, is as much a mystery as what happens in the cave at Marabar-and that's what makes "A Passage to India" a work of surprising depth.
Though the characters here ostensibly represent "types," they're much more complicated than that--perhaps because they themselves are uncertain of what they really feel. The closest we get to cardboard characters are the fussy magistrate and a Gandhi-esque Indian who hangs out with Dr. Aziz and his friends. In fact, the only real misstep of the film comes from Lean's casting of the very British Alec Guinness ("The Bridge on the River Kwai") as the very Indian philosopher Professor Godbole. Ben Kingsley would have been a more logical choice, but perhaps Lean felt that two years after winning an Oscar for his portrayal of "Gandhi" was too soon to feature him in a role like this and not have the audience think of the more famous Indian. But Guinness can't pull it off, and rumor has it that he and Lean had a falling out over the amount of his scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor. Too bad none are included here.
"A Passage to India" was nominated for 11 Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director), but won only for Maurice Jarre's haunting original music and Ashcroft's supporting role. Not nominated, but one who comes across startlingly well was James Fox, who plays Dr. Aziz's English friend, Richard Fielding. There's an evenness and basic goodness to the man that serves as a parallel to the unpretentious Mrs. Moore and a kindred spirit to Dr. Aziz. As you watch his eyes, you see that he's perceiving many of the nuances and contradictions that exist in this culture-rich colony.
Lean also wrote the screenplay, and he gives us an intelligent script that makes this "Passage to India" worth the journey.
"A Passage to India" is a colorful film, and in 1080p it's a real joy to watch. Colors are brilliant at times-fully saturated in some crowd scenes showing Indian dress-and natural-looking at other times, as when the group ventures across the rugged terrain to the caves. Throughout the film the black levels are very strong, so we see rich contrasts and plenty of detail. This is a catalog title, though, and there are some open-air scenes where there's noticeable graininess and a little bit of noise. But overall, this film hasn't looked this good since moviegoers first saw it on the big screen. The only caveat, and I'm not in a position to say or speculate why, is that the film was originally shot in 35mm Technicolor at 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but it's presented here on a 50GB disc at 1.66:1, using AVC/MPEG-4 technology. I didn't notice any compression problems, so all I can do is wonder about the discrepancy in aspect ratios.
Sony decided to go with an English or French Dolby TrueHD 5.1 on this title, and for the most part it's a clean and clear and crisp soundtrack. The dialogue sounds natural and full, and Jarre's music is channeled through the effects speakers nicely to support the ambient sounds of India. The only thing I can say is that it's not as dynamic an audio as some releases. Perhaps this is because it's a catalog title, but I never felt the room fill with lively, dancing sound the way it does with the best PCM audio tracks.
Producer Richard Goodwin offers an intelligent commentary that covers an enormous amount of territory, including Lean's methods, casting, behind-the-scenes issues, and technical aspects. He's as lucid as a film historian, and either has a great memory or prepared remarks especially for this release.
Seven short features are also included: "E.M. Forster: Profile of an Author," "An Epic Takes Shape," "An Indian Affair," "Only Connect: A Vision of India," "Casting a Classic," "David Lean: Shooting with the Master," and "Reflections of David Lean." Vintage interview clips with Lean are augmented by new reflections by Guinness, Davis, and Ashcroft. I particularly enjoyed the profile of Forster and features like "A Vision of India" that showed more footage of the locations.
Exclusive to Blu-ray is "Beyond the Passage: Picture-in-Picture Graphics Track," which takes a different approach to pop-up trivia tracks. Instead of sticking with a pop-up box or picture-in-picture for the augmentative material, this track instead shrinks the feature film to 12x18" size and uses the rest of the screen for the trivia presentation. On the one hand it's easier to read and appreciate longer explanations this way, but on the other hand it's a more disruptive experience. It's an interesting concept, but you can't really get into the flow of the film. You just have to be wanting to see the trivia in some context.
The only other "bonus" features are a few Blu-ray and David Lean Collection promos.
But the menu screen is gorgeous, and it's easily navigated.
As one might imagine, "A Passage to India" is a visual treat, but it's also the kind of epic that seems painted on a small enough canvas to where it resonates as incident and fable as much as it reflects a grander theme. The acting, the writing, the music, and the cinematography are all first-rate. Though there was no promo here for future David Lean Blu-rays, let's hope it won't be too long before his other epics are brought to 1080p life.