David Lean's career has embraced very different poles of moviemaking, from the intimacy of ``Brief Encounter'' to the epic sweep of ``Lawrence of Arabia.'' His new film, ``A Passage to India,'' brings together the extremes of this spectrum -- studying fine points of delicate personal relations against the background of an exotic place at a turbulent time. The result is a lavishly produced and often involving drama that never reaches its full potential. Although he stays close to the plot of E. M. Forster's classic novel, Mr. Lean fails to re-create either its ironic tone or its sardonic vision. Without irony, the characters seem by turns vague and overheated; without minor-key humor, the portrait of colonial India seems flat and even corny.
If one watches ``A Passage'' with interest and empathy despite these shortcomings, it's because Lean has a trusty ally in almost every scene: that old standby, great acting. One may wince at his symbolism, carp at his crowd scenes, and wonder what he's driving at in some key sequences; but when he zeroes in on the emotional intensity of Judy Davis and Peggy Ashcroft -- the most electric performers of the piece -- all is forgiven as the viewer watches spellbound.
As in the Forster novel, the setting is colonial India during the 1920s, when serious thought was brewing about throwing off the British yoke. The characters include smug Britons and ambivalent Indians, as well as a compassionate old Englishwoman who (visiting her son, a British administrator) can't imagine why her compatriots treat their subjects with such contempt. It's her son's bride-to-be who precipitates a crisis by accusing an Indian friend of sexual assault -- a charge that stems from the young woman's own neuroses but exemplifies Western fear, irrationality, and irresponsibility vis-`a-vis the subcontinent.
When it focuses directly on this story, ``A Passage to India'' works well as old-fashioned movie drama. But when it tries to weave visual embroidery around its themes, it bogs down -- as in a stilted scene where the young woman wanders into the countryside and gets grossed out by some ancient X-rated statues.
With regard to the enigmatic assault, meanwhile, Lean seems inconclusive where Forster was ambiguous, muddled where Forster was forthright. The movie also botches the book's delirious portrait of India itself, seething in a grand chaos of physical and mental currents that are almost unimaginable even to the initiate. Only pale shadows make it to the screen.
Balanced against this, however, are those splendid performances. Ms. Davis's concentration is so fierce you can feel it; Ms. Ashcroft exudes a grand-dame dignity with just the right hint of self-parody; Victor Bannerjee is all energy (if not enough subtlety) as the accused Indian doctor; Alec Guinness is fun in his small role as a befuddled intellectual, although I question the taste of white actors doing ethnic make-believe at this late stage of the moviemaking game.
Lean relishes the work of these experts and records it lovingly, with added support from his immaculately timed editing. Such performances are worth watching with wide-open eyes even when the movie around them hits the doldrums.