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A Passage to India is David Lean’s lush, visually impressive rendition of E.M. Forster’s novel of the same name. The story begins with a young British woman, Adela Quested (Judy Davis), traveling to India, where her prospective husband is a judge in the British colonial administration. Once there, Adela and her future mother-in-law Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) become sharply aware of the rigid distinction between the transplanted British culture of the colonial upper class, and “the real India.” A fascination with that “real India” leads Adela and Mrs. Moore to befriend a young Indian doctor, Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee)... and to discover that the hot sun of India may bring to the surface passions that may be more than either of them expected, or can understand.

A Passage to India is a movie that rewards the patient viewer. The pacing of the film is a bit off in the first half hour or so; it feels rushed, as if director David Lean felt compelled to include all of the events described in Forster’s novel, even though he only glosses over them. The result is that the first part of the movie is somewhat confusing, with a number of characters introduced in a rush as Adela is shown buying her ticket and traveling to India. Once Adela arrives in India, the pace of the film slows down and we can experience what the movie is really about: the characters, their relationships, and their experiences with the mystery that is India.

The characterizations are sound. It’s a complex film, with complex, conflicted characters. A few scenes are puzzling, as Lean seems to expect the viewer to be completely “inside the head” of a character in order to understand a scene; he seems to rely on visual symbolism (such as some ancient erotic sculptures that Adela comes upon in a field) to give the viewer the crucial insight into the character. Since his imagery isn’t necessarily obvious, this technique can result in a feeling of not understanding the characters’ reactions at all. On the scale of the entire movie, however, the consistent focus on the characters makes it possible to appreciate and understand their experiences and emotions, even if their reactions seemed incomprehensible to both the viewer and the character at the time.

A Passage to India has at its heart important issues about colonialism and the clash of disparate cultures, and makes a strong point about the unfairness of the British treatment of Indians at that time. (It’s ironic, in light of this theme, that the cover of the DVD features three native British actors, including Alec Guinness with makeup to look Indian, while Victor Banerjee, a genuine Indian with a much larger role than Guinness, is conspicuously absent.) Under the hand of a different director, the film could easily have shifted perspective from characters to the political issues, but Lean keeps the focus tightly on the characters. This results in a movie that is both less predictable, and more satisfying, than expected.

The picture quality of this disc is very good, especially considering that the movie is from 1984: old enough to possibly be in need of clean-up, yet too recent to be automatically considered for a restoration. The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer is not quite perfect in sharpness and cleanness, but it comes close. Certainly there’s nothing that obviously detracts from the viewing experience. The beautiful cinematography shows off the good transfer as well: there are gorgeous views of mountains, valleys, and lakes, as well as strong, vibrant color in images such as the marketplace.

The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is solid. The dialogue is clear, and the music is well-balanced to the dialogue, unlike the more recent DVD release of Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, in which the musical score periodically rises obtrusively above the normal volume level. In A Passage to India, the soundtrack is actually quite crucial to certain parts of the movie, especially the key scenes in the Marabar Caves, and adds a great deal to the atmosphere of other scenes, with the sounds of music, crowds, drums, rainfall, and so on.

The extras on this disc look more impressive on a list than they are in practice. There are trailers, production notes, and cast biographies, but unfortunately there is no documentary about the making of the film. There is a brief, eight-minute piece titled “Reflections of David Lean” which consists of snippets of an interview with the director. It doesn’t seem to be specific to A Passage to India, as he also discusses Bridge on the River Kwai. It’s moderately interesting, but brief.

Overall, this is a solid film if you’re intrigued by the topic of the movie, liked David Lean’s other films, or enjoy classic novels interpreted on the screen. A Passage to India isn’t fast-paced, but it’s rewarding if you’re willing to settle in and be absorbed by it.