Man, if you there was an epic drama to be made, then David Lean seemed to be the go-to guy for the longest time, especially if your epic was about some kind of multicultural adventure that took place in the 1920s. He's escorted Lawrence to Arabia, watched Dr. Zhivago run through a revolutionary Russia and is now, for this, his final picture, searching for a passage to India. I don't know about y'all, but maybe he wasn't so much crazy about the idea of these epics, as much as he was into traveling to all kinds of exotic locations, and if that's the case, then I must say that boy had a pretty terrible taste in vacation spots. We're talking about Arabian and Indian deserts, and even when we go to somewhere like Russia or Thailand, it's riddled with warfare. Hey, say what you will about the late Mr. Lean's bizarre taste in visiting spots, they all made for a pretty good movie. Yes, I going for singular, because Lean pretty much made the same film quite often, but oh, what a film it was. Still, no piece of that picture was spotless, and this typical Lean epic is no exception.
Like many David Lean epics of its type, the film is overdeveloped, with overlong periods of exposition and converstion that textures the film to the point of tainting urgency and conflict that does set in upon the film's pick-up, yet is so very absent for a while, leaving the film to get off to a limp start. It doesn't help that this film suffers from a common flaw within David Lean films that goes undermentioned, and that is a kind of stiffness in the atmosphere during these overlong pieces of talkative exposition. Situations and characters feel rather awkward in their presentation in most of the these Lean films, and this film is not simply no exception, but an especially notable example, as the awkwardness goes intensified by more unsubtle overemphasis on such aspects as the multiculturalism within the cast, as well as the general character personalities. Sure, the characters find themselves fleshed-out as the film progresses, though not as thoroughly as they should, as the plot feels lacking in steady build and meditation, plagued by the forced bloating found in Lean's other efforts about at its most intense, though it's not with enough of the sweep or intrigue to back it up. Lean has always made such flawed films, yet he's always compensated with sweeping, dramatically intense subject matter, yet this "epic" falls short of producing that, making all of the flaws in Lean's formula all the more noticable, with not enough saving grace or oomph to it for it to transcend underwhelmingness as Lean's final effort. However, although the film goes plagued by what hasn't been thoroughly recognized enough as typical flaws in Lean's epics, it still goes graced by has justifiably recognzied as typical strengths in Lean's epics. Sure, you shouldn't expect to get your fill of Lean's usual batch of rewarding right moves, yet expect more than enough of it to keep the film engaging.
Within this world lays no war-torn Russia, Thailand battlefield or even a sweeping desert to give this film that extreme epic sweep, yet the locations remain commendable, nevertheless, giving the era and setting with an authentic feel that engages the audience and even gives the film a degree of compellingness, as the locations also provide environmental supplement to the dramatic atmosphere. Still, it's not only Lean's locations that engages, but also his direction, as the man always had a taste for relatively advanced sensibilities in storytelling audacity and sensibilites. Sure, these tastes went betrayed by the limitations of his time, and even though this film leans (Name pun not intended) closer to modern storytelling sensibilites, that situation still stands just as, if not more problematic, due to the faultiness in Lean's storytelling, yet when Lean delivers on dramatic depth, he enthralls with audacious intrigue and subtlety that may not be as prominent is should be, yet remains present enough to make the nothingness within the story reasonably worth sitting through, thanks not only to Lean, but the talents in front of the camera. On top of knowing how to work with sweep and style, David Lean really knew how to summon excellent performances, and while the former isn't terribly up to par, the latter is as remarkable in here as it's ever been in a David Lean film, with each member of the colorful cast all but transcending the rather stiff atmosphere around the characters with across-the-board sharp charisma, tied together by just as sharp chemistry, until a half-way twist presents the opportunity for the performers to really deliver, which they most certainly do, especially the show-stealing Judy Davis and Victor Banerjee. Davis' Adela Quested character is initially one of charming sophistication, as well as ambition, yet as the realities of the world, both good and bad, find themselves thrust upon her, she undergoes some transformation that soon finds itself going into a turn for the ugly, at which point Davis nails betrayal, anguish and overall the unbearable with a hauntingly subtle presence, occasionally intensified by powerful emotional range. All the while, Victor Banerjee also claims the spotlight, pumping the Dr. Aziz Ahmed character with defining wonderment, charm and nobility, yet when this character begins to unravel, letting a slew of dark secrets and twists spill out, Banerjee emits raw intensity and mystery in his presence, yet still with enough humanity to stay true to his character, making Ahmed the character, and the mysterious turn of events behind, among the most engrossing and unpredictable aspects of the film. The film is tragically lacking in frequency with its dramatic effectivness, and were more consistent in its depth, then it would have stood as a thoroughly rewarding capper to Lean's career, yet as it stands, it's an enjoyable final note by the late legend.
Overall, David Lean's final production goes lacking in sweep and, by extension, compensation for the excessive talkative exposition and nothingness within the underwhelming storytelling, thus leaving this final epic effort by Lean hardly sweeping, yet locations remain just as engaging and supplementary to the atmosphere, while a fair couple of golden moments of emotional intrigue go delivered by Lean, with a myriad of electrically charismatic, when not hauntingly powerful performances capturing the humanity in the film, ultimately making "A Passage to India" a generally enjoyable and, at times, rather satisfying final testament to Lean's strengths, even if it also stands as a particularly strong testament to his weaknesses.
2.5/5 - Fair