David Lean’s visions of grandeur | Daily News

David Lean’s visions of grandeur

If the cinema by definition belongs in halls and not TVs, David Lean was a definite purveyor of the cinema. In a career spanning half a century, Lean directed 17 films, editing 24 others. David Puttnam called him “the greatest storyteller on film”, Walter Kerr perhaps “the best British film director”, and the New York Times “a meticulous craftsman noted for technical wizardry.” These are fragmentary judgments, yet they are right.

Lean is known today for three films in particular: two of them won for him the Best Director Oscar: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, shot in Sri Lanka), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Doctor Zhivago (1965). Lean perfected the epic form, and these are some of the greatest epics to ever grace the screen. He attempted a comeback after Zhivago, a romance set in the time of the Russian Revolution, with Ryan’s Daughter (1970), a similar romance, though not quite on the same scale, set in the time of the Easter Rising.

The result was not to Lean’s liking: critics across the Atlantic, including Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael, lambasted it, the latter going as far as to claim it had was “no artistic or moral rationale.” Beyond the Atlantic, it proved to be more popular: even in Sri Lanka, where Sunil Ariyaratne saw it at the Quinlon in Nugegoda; he argued that it influenced his work. Dayan Jayatilleka saw it too; he called “forgettably anodyne.” Both were correct.

Ryan’s Daughter won two Oscars, fewer than the five Doctor Zhivago received: Best Supporting Actor for the person who played a village idiot, and Best Cinematography. Lean vowed never to make a film again: the critics had been too harsh, and perhaps he knew that as cruel as some of their judgments may have been, they were not wide of the mark when they claimed that the historical backdrop of the story, 20th century Ireland, did not cohere with the epic scale of the movie. He had attempted a square peg in a round hole.

Like any perfectionist, he viewed this as an aberration from which he could not recover. He very nearly did not: for the next 12 years, barring a minor work on James Cook, he spent time from the cinema, until, in 1984, he returned with an adaptation of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. Critics liked it: both Ebert and Kael gushed positively in their reviews. It also won three Oscars. It was to be his last work. Eight years later, while plans were underway for an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, he died in London at the age of 83.

Of his early work as director, two stand out: Brief Encounter (1945) and Great Expectations (1946). Like most of his films from this period, he also wrote their scripts. Brief Encounter is hailed today as a landmark in his country’s cinema: the British Film Institute’s list of the 100 Top British movies puts it at number two. Great Expectations, number five on that list, is considered a superior, authentic, and moving adaptation of a Dickens story. It also has the most effectively terrifying encounter between Pip, the narrator, and Magwitch, the escaped convict who figures in his life, from any adaptation of that story I’ve seen.

What intrigues me more than these accolades and achievements, however, is not so much how they are different to his middle period (Kwai-Lawrence-Zhivago) as why they are different at all. The devil is in the detail, the clue in the credits: he wrote them. Lean was an exceptional director in the epic vein, but as a writer, he preferred pianissimos to fortissimos; that quality surfaces discernibly in Brief Encounter’s restrained ending.

What was true of Lean was true also of other British directors who migrated to Hollywood: what they directed back home felt more sensitive to the vagaries of the human condition than what they churned out in Tinsel Town. Insofar as this quality distilled Lean, it put him in the same league as Carol Reed and Alfred Hitchcock, not to mention Ridley Scott.

Such comparisons go deep once you see the first few films these directors made in the US, especially Lean: one his first Hollywood ventures was Summertime (1955), a love story centring on an unmarried, middle-aged woman (Katharine Hepburn) and her paramours in Venice, where she spends her money and time in fulfilment of a lifelong dream.

There’s nothing in Summertime which suggests the bombastic dialogues, wide landscapes, and symphonic crescendos of his later years. Like Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, the Coen Brothers, Woody Allen, and Quentin Tarantino, his most nuanced work came out in the movies he co-wrote, even in Hollywood. When responsibility for the script shifted to another, Lean, like Ezra Pound translating classical Chinese poetry and Boris Pasternak translating Shakespeare, turned into a versatile conduit for another’s vision.

It is hard, if not impossible, to square the Lean of these formative years with the Lean of The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia. The latter, the greatest epic ever made, in fact combines two genres: the Western and the war film. Influenced heavily by the films of John Ford, the plot sways from grand vistas to introspective monologues, from desert battles to quiet moments, with a dexterity rarely to be seen even in Ford’s work.

What is interesting and evocative about Lawrence of Arabia, however, is not that it grows in stature, but that it holds back what it grows up to: rarely has an epic film, on this scale, been so nuanced. There are moments in the film, like the scene where the hero arrives at the Suez Canal after traipsing for days in the desert, when the quietness and the solitude of the moment yield to a symphonic cacophony, only to hold back.

Nuance is hard to find in Doctor Zhivago; it’s nowhere to be found in Ryan’s Daughter. One can discern a swelling of confidence in these works. The source material doesn’t provide the sort of backdrop for them in the same way it did for Lawrence: Zhivago is a love story set in the time of revolution based on a novel that only pretends to know about love or revolution (Regi Siriwardena called it one of the world’s most unreadable novels), while Ryan is based, loosely, on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, anachronistically transposed to Ireland.

There’s hardly any depth of character in Ryan’s Daughter, and the little there is in Doctor Zhivago comes, not from the protagonists, but from characters on the side: even the hero’s brother, who in the story’s flashbacks does not speak one word, seems more solid.

Zhivago, however, proved to be Lean’s biggest box-office draw: it elevated Julie Christie, the lover of the hero, to stardom (she won an Oscar for another movie the following year), and did the same with Omar Sharif, the hero. Depicting communist Russia was not easy in those Cold War days, and Lean had to replicate the entire country in anticommunist Spain. Not surprisingly, like the novel, the film was banned in Russia, drawing polarising responses from Western critics: Pauline Kael went as far as to suggest that it provided a postcard version of Soviet life, a view I highly doubt the Soviets shared.

Of course these hardly mattered to popular audiences: what caught them wasn’t so much the characters, or the authenticity of the locations, as the landscapes and the music. Lacking even this crutch, Ryan’s Daughter sagged and meandered badly.

Given Lean’s diminished reputation at the time of its release, A Passage to India goes down as one of the more notable comebacks in film history. The movie does its best to conform to the E. M. Forster story, though it deviates from the plot. It ends on a plaintive note, the most discernible departure from the novel, but still strikes the right chord.

On the other hand, it also succeeds, as Lawrence of Arabia did and Zhivago failed to do, to strike a balance between the nuanced sensitivity of his early years and the visions of grandeur of his middle period. The only dissonant chord in the movie is Alec Guinness’s performance as a Brahmin, who waxes eloquently and convincingly on Hindu philosophy, but whose face, and accent, betrays the actor beneath the character.

Satyajit Ray, one of the few detractors of the film, lambasted the acting, the music, and the direction of the plot: he accused it of glossing over Indian life. Was this a mere difference of opinion? Had Ray directed it, and A Passage to India was a project he had wanted to work on long before Lean, it would have been Ray’s film, in the same way it is Lean’s. Of course, this is not to deny the validity of Ray’s criticism, for he was correct: as a South Asian, I find the film’s characterisation of Indian life, particularly Alec Guinness’s Orientalist ramblings, too misplaced to authenticate anyone but the British characters.

Yet in that he merely shared the one shortcoming of the novel: as Regi Siriwardena observed once, E. M. Forster fails to get into the Indians in the book, in the same way Lean fails to in the movie. Are we being too harsh by both, adopting a criterion for a work of art that may be irrelevant and invalid? Perhaps. Without getting into cultural polemics, then, it would do well to watch Lean’s swansong, and his oeuvre, on Lean’s terms, in the same way we watch Ray’s work on Ray’s terms, as part of his own distinct vision.