Program Length: 164 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 1080p
Languages: English Dolby TrueHD 5.1, French Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Subtitles: English, English SDH, French, Spanish
More years ago than I care to remember, I was a sailor in the U.S. Navy and was stationed for 18 months at the Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines. It marked the first time that I had ever been outside the United States, and it was a cultural shock to me. However, as time went by I began to realize that most of the cultural “shocking” was being done by the Americans to the Filipinos. While the presence of the U.S. Navy (and Air Force) in the Philippines provided that country with considerable economic benefits, the flip side of the coin was the thousands of Filipinos who found themselves engaging in prostitution, the drug trade and a thriving and illegal black market. My impression was that most American sailors were contemptuous of the Filipinos. Even those of us who had some interest in learning something about the real Philippines had neither the means nor the time to do so. Many years later the Senate of the Philippines decided that the American presence there was more trouble than it was worth and refused to renew the leases for the military bases. The last base closed in 1992.
A similar clash of cultures is at the heart of David Lean’s A Passage to India, a reasonably faithful adaptation of the novel by E.M. Forster. It is the 1920s, and in the years following World War I the British Empire still rules much of the world. Adela Quested (Judy Davis), a young British woman who has never been outside of England, books a cabin on an ocean liner for a trip to India. Her traveling companion is her future mother-in-law, Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft), whose son is a British magistrate in India.
When the women arrive in Bombay, they are fascinated by what they find and express a desire to see and meet real Indians. Their request is met by puzzlement from the Britons who live there, who seemingly have no interest in learning anything about the people they rule. A decision is made to oblige the women by inviting prominent Indians to a party, but the result is an uncomfortable fiasco. The British hosts can scarcely conceal their disdain for their Indian guests, and the Indians feel hopelessly and sheepishly out of place. The incongruity is perhaps best expressed by a scene of an all-Indian orchestra, decked out in British uniforms, being led by an obviously uncomfortable Indian conductor during a rendition of “God Save the King.”
One Englishman who actually has empathy for the Indians is Richard Fielding (James Fox), an educator who introduces the women to Ariz Ahmed (Victor Banjaree), a local doctor who is thrilled to meet Britons who actually take genuine interest in him. When the women again express a desire to see something of India, Dr. Aziz offers to take them on an outing to the famous Marabar Caves. The other major character in the film is Professor Godbole (played by a nearly unrecognizable Alec Guinness), who offers some insights into India’s culture.
When Dr. Aziz takes the women on an outing to the Marabar Caves, something unseemly happens to Adela. What exactly occurs is unclear, but the British authorities suspect that she was molested by Dr. Aziz and she is pressured to file charges against the doctor. The doctor is arrested for attempted rape and he finds himself ensnared in the British legal system, which operates on the assumption that the defendant is guilty until proven innocent.
A Passage to India is a bit long, and the going is a tad slow at times, but it is worth the effort. The cinematography is superb, the acting is uniformly excellent, and the historical period is captured perfectly. Peggy Ashcroft won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and Maurice Jarre won for Best Original Score. The film also garnered nine other Oscar nominations. A Passage to India provides an incisive look into what inevitably happens when one country undertakes a long-term occupation of another. The film also captures the undercurrent of unrest expressed through the Indian Independence Movement, which ultimately led to India’s independence in 1947.
The 1080p Blu-ray widescreen transfer is stunning. Color fidelity is superb throughout and the picture is sharp and crystal-clear. There is minimal grain and overall the image is satisfyingly film-like. David Lean was a very visual filmmaker, and his talents are shown off to excellent advantage here. Black levels are excellent and shadow detail is quite good. This is a first-class Blu-ray release by Sony and is easily the best that this film has looked on home video.
It should be noted that I have read some confusion about the film’s aspect ratio. Here it is shown at 1.66:1, which leaves small black bars on both sides of the image. Although some sources say that the film was shot at 1.85:1, the consensus now seems to be that 1.66:1 is indeed the original aspect ratio.
The Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 audio is very satisfying and smoothly reproduces the film’s soundtrack. This film was made nearly 25 years ago, so be aware that there is nothing here which will blow you away. Nevertheless, the musical score is fairly powerful and the dialogue is clear and understandable. My only caveat is that the volume seemed to me to be a bit on the low side; I had to crank up the volume to a higher level than usual.
This Blu-ray release of A Passage to India includes a number of significant extras.
Included is an informative commentary track by producer Richard Goodwin. A featurette entitled “E.M. Forster: A Profile of an Author” covers the highlights of his life and discusses some of the themes of the novel. In a featurette entitled “An Epic Takes Shape,” members of the cast and crew discuss how the project began.
Much of the film was shot on location in India, and that aspect of the production is looked at in a featurette called “An Indian Affair.” Post-production and the filming at Shepperton Studios in England are covered in “Only Connect: A Vision of India.” In another featurette the film’s casting director, Priscilla John, discusses the challenges involved in choosing the actors who appear in the film.
There are also two featurettes about the director, David Lean. One, called “David Lean: Shooting with the Master,” examines his career and discusses how this film, his last, fits in with his entire body of work. The other featurette, entitled “Reflections of David Lean,” also appears on the previous DVD release of A Passage to India.
Finally, there is a Blu-ray exclusive, a picture-in-picture feature which allows the viewer to watch the film on one part of the screen while historical notes and production notes appear on another part of the screen. The viewer can jump from one note to the next, so it is possible to read all of the notes without having to watch the entire film again.
The pop-up menu allows the viewer to change audio selections, turn sub-titles on and off, and turn the commentary on and off while the film continues to play.
A promo clip for new DVD releases of Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai makes no mention of Blu-ray editions, unfortunately.
The single disc comes in a standard Blu-ray keepcase.
The Final Analysis
Fans of David Lean will certainly want to add A Passage to India to their collections. While most viewers place it a notch below the likes of Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and some of Lean’s other movies, it remains an example of first-rate filmmaking and should be enjoyed by anyone who is drawn to historical epics.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic DMP-BD10A DVD Player
Sharp LC-42D62U LCD display
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable
Release Date: April 15, 2008