(On Cable TV, February 2019) I’m on a quest to see all the movies nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and unfortunately this means that I have to make my way through movies such as A Passage to India. Considering that’s it’s a long movie (2h44m!) that feels even longer due to its slow narrative pacing, you may want to book a holiday before you embark on seeing the movie. It’s long. It’s so unbelievably long. It’s David Lean-class long, which makes sense considering that he wrote, produced and directed it. The production design is sumptuous, evoking the atmosphere of 1920 India … but it’s long. If you do manage to dig into the material (or if this is your kind of thing), there’s a lot to like in the film’s depiction of British Raj India, racism and class distinction against a visually refined backdrop. But the marathon-like pacing of a rather simple story makes it a sometimes-punishing viewing. Lean’s approach here is interesting in that he draws back from the wide-scale vistas of his previous epic films to deliver a well-visualized smaller story … but he could have gone further in being more efficient, bringing the length of the film to one more appropriate for the story being told. This being said, A Passage to India is the kind of atmospheric film where I suspect that many factors (including mood and personal preference) will influence an overall assessment.
(On Cable TV, June 2018) Watching classic movies from a list of pre-approved classics is usually one happy discovery after another—after all, those are the movies that have lasted throughout the ages, so they come with a presumption of quality. After a while, you start to wonder if all movies of the time were just as good, or if you’re getting a skewed idea of the period through its best representatives. But then you’re brought back to earth by a film such as Brief Encounter, which feels dull, overlong, anticlimactic and even useless. But our perspective is not that of the time, of course: Back in 1945, Brief Encounter and its tale of unconsummated adulterous passion was seen as a return to normalcy after the wartime years, as a refreshing example of realism, as a courageous take on many British presumptions. It’s subtle, unfulfilling and stoic—and it betrays a ton accumulated and assumed social restrictions. That does not make for exhilarating cinema. But it did bring director David Lean to the forefront of his contemporaries, and earned Brief Encounter an overwhelming number of favourable notices. Don’t ask me what I think, though: I barely stayed awake throughout the film, and would not jump at the chance of seeing it again.
(On Cable TV, June 2018) I have little patience for anything these days, so getting me to sit down for three-and-a-half-hours to watch a Russian novel turned into an epic movie, even a David Lean movie, is asking too much. It took me four days to get through Doctor Zhivago, and I kept going only because the film is of some historical interest. Even then, the journey was gruelling. It’s not that the film is 193 minutes long—it’s that even for that amount of time, not a lot actually happens. It is a generational romance set against the backdrop of early-twentieth-century Russia, and yet it feels uncomfortably small, with a handful of characters bouncing against each other even in a country as large as Russia. To be fair, Omar Sharif is fantastic as the titular Zhivago, and Julie Christie isn’t bad as the lead female character. This being said, the show is stolen by smaller roles: Rod Steiger is delightfully evil as a well-connected politician, while Tom Courtenay has a great arc as the initially meek Pasha. Still, much of Doctor Zhivago unfolds slowly, with characters having intimate conversations while the country goes up in flames somewhere in the background. For an epic, it feels curiously small-scale and focused on melodramatic plot threads. Reading about the film, its troubled production and the historical context of the original novel is more interesting than the film itself—as I was wondering how a Russian film could be produced by a big Hollywood studio in the middle of the Cold War, the film doesn’t exactly act as pro-Soviet propaganda … and adapting the novel was seen as a big gesture against the USSR given that it had banned the book. Still, the result is an often-exasperating experience as nothing happens for a very long time. The film’s high points (such as the moments immediately preceding its intermission) aren’t, quite enough to make up for the rest, including an even more punishing framing device that adds even more minutes to an already bloated result. But at last it’s done: I have watched Doctor Zhivago and don’t have to watch it ever again in order to say that I did.
(On Cable TV, May 2018) Some films connect and others don’t, and the 1947 version of Great Expectations mostly doesn’t despite a few good qualities. I suspect that I would have been far more impressed by this take if I had both read and loved the original Dickens novel, or had I not seen the 1998 version transplanting the story to contemporary Florida and New York. As it is, this faithful Victorian-era version of Great Expectations is both a retread of a story I knew, with just enough to keep it interesting but not enough to make it anything memorable. The highlight of the movie, aside from David Lean’s competent direction and occasional set pieces, is John Mills’s performance as adult Pip, moving through the years and becoming ever more hardened by the events of his life. Otherwise, it’s a good movie that has aged into a bit of an average viewing experience. The Victorian details can be intriguing, and there’s no denying the effectiveness of Dickens’ plotting. But there isn’t much here to be enthusiastic about, although I’ll allow for the possibility that another look at Great Expectations, at a different time, may produce a more enthusiastic reaction—after all, my issues here are about impact, not quality of execution.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, November 2017) I first watched Lawrence of Arabia in university, taking advantage of the selection of classic movies at the library. I recall being impressed at the scope of the movie, its cinematography and the train attack sequence. A re-watch twenty-five years later is amazing for different reasons: while the epic scope and cinematography remain astonishing (although, seriously, did this film need to be more than three hours?), I’m more interested by the complexities of the lead character as played by Peter O’Toole. T.E. Lawrence’s dramatic arc plays out in multiple dimensions, first transforming him from an underestimated drone to a full-fledged desert warrior, then a reluctant leader and then a disillusioned stranger. There are also the personal characteristics of the man: his implied homosexuality, his barely constrained thirst for war, and his masochism (“the trick … is not minding that it hurts”), all of them refreshingly portrayed by O’Toole in a performance that downplays major markers of conventional masculinity. It’s a war film with thrilling sequences, but it’s not particularly kind to the British for their treatment of their Arab allies after World War I. It’s a big, big story handled with skill by director David Lean and the technical qualities of the film are still astonishing fifty-five years later—aside from the typical Technicolor tint, the latest (2012) remaster of Lawrence of Arabia looks just as good on HD today than many contemporary features. Length aside, I still like it a lot … albeit for different reasons than twenty-five years ago.