The Panoramic & the Personal
A CINEMATIC VIEW
Film buffs eagerly looked forward to the appearance of David Lean’s version of E.M. Forster’s novel, A Passage to India. And why not? Just that Lean was returning to film after a 17 year hiatus was enough to whet the appetites of movie lovers, but that such an outstanding film director would tackle what many critics consider one of the finest novels in the English language was special news.
Lean has had an extraordinary career directing films such as Brief Encounter, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, and Ryan’s Daughter. His version of Dickens’s Great Expectations illustrates as well as any of his films the director’s mastery of the medium. The black-and-white film is visually stunning. Sets, costumes, and several exceptional performances serve as building blocks in the construction of a nearly perfect film. Lean’s creation is as artistically successful as cinema as Dickens’s novel is as a piece of literature.
At the risk of making a sweeping generalization that oversimplifies the nuances of Lean’s artistry, I suggest that until A Passage to India Lean emphasized the external rather than the internal, the sentient rather than the psychic, the visual rather than the invisible, the narrative rather than the symbolic. There was much personal drama in films such as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, but rather than plumb the depths of someone’s soul, Lean externalized personal struggles against a vast panoramic setting. Lean’s forte was precisely that: to make magnificent spectacles that nevertheless contained personal drama of some substance. With Forster’s A Passage to India Lean reached for something a bit deeper: to film the specifically spiritual against the background of the clash between English and Indian cultures. There-suit is a mixed bag: the clash between cultures is captured on celluloid but Lean’s cinema of the spiritual is a bit murky and muddled. Nevertheless Lean is such a skilled filmmaker that A Passage to India is a marvelously exciting and intriguing film, if one that is less than completely satisfying. We are entertained by it even though we can’t quite figure out what all of it is supposed to mean.
The film opens with two English ladies traveling to the East — Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) whose son Ronny (Nigel Havers), is a magistrate in the city of Chandrapore, and Adela (Judy Davis), who though close to being engaged to Ronny is, we discover, sexually repressed. When they reach their destination the two ladies learn quickly of the racist attitudes their fellow countrymen, including Ronny, have toward the people of India. Neither woman, nor schoolmaster Fielding (James Fox), will go along with attitudes or actions toward the Indians which they consider uncivilized. Mrs. Moore, a devout Christian, strikes up a friendship with the young Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee), a widower. Because of both ladies’ kindness to him, Dr. Aziz, eager to foster their friendship, invites them for an all-day outing to the Marabar Caves.
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