In the years between David Lean's 1970 mood piece Ryan's Daughter and his more conventional 1984 adaptation of E.M. Forster's A Passage To India, the epic, precisely composed filmmaking Lean pioneered had largely fallen out of favor, replaced in arthouses by more intimate period pieces. A year later, director James Ivory and his producing partner Ismail Merchant released their own Forster adaptation, A Room With A View, and effectively created a new genre of tasteful, small-scaled movies about British gentlefolk interacting with the brutish world. But while Merchant-Ivory (along with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) were generally interested in how scenes from great literature might feel, Lean cared more about how they might look.
In A Passage To India, Lean was blessed with one of literature's greatest locations: the Barabar Caves (fictionalized as the Marabar Caves), a half-natural/half-manmade wonder that hosts a moment of sublime ambiguity. Judy Davis, playing a broad-minded Englishwoman, travels east to meet her fiancé, a magistrate in India during the time of the British Raj. There, she and her prospective mother-in-law Peggy Ashcroft are introduced to Westernized doctor Victor Banerjee, who invites them on an expedition to the Caves. But during their visit, Davis is overwhelmed by the heat and sensuality of her environs, and… something happens. Forster never specifies what that "something" is, and neither does Lean, but when Davis flees the caves, looking disheveled, Banerjee is accused of rape, and the subsequent trial galvanizes India's budding independence movement.
Forster's novel is a sophisticated piece of political analysis, about how prejudices seep through in spite of people's best efforts to beat them back. Lean's film is about that too, but he literalizes a lot of the themes of the book, letting some of his own prejudices show. From Banerjee's intentionally grating performance to Davis' swooning at the sight of erotic statues and chattering monkeys, Lean emphasizes the gulf between the earthy and the civilized, and though he's critical of the British, it's still clear which side he understands better. Yet in some ways, it's Lean's old-world sensibility that makes A Passage To India effective. While it isn't as brilliant as his The Bridge On The River Kwai or Lawrence Of Arabia, Lean's final film is just as meticulously designed, because more than any other filmmaker of his era, he understood how the right hat could say as much about a character —and a society—as any line of dialogue.
Key features: A thorough commentary by producer Richard Goodwin, plus revealing featurettes.