There may be no better indication of the impoverishment of mainstream movie culture than the acclaim for "A Passage to India," a movie that really has no virtue but good taste. There couldn't be a tonier project than hiring David Lean, a British director with a reputation for craftsmanship, to adapt the classic 1924 E.M. Forster novel -- the cast even includes two British peers, Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Sir Alec Guinness. But have we become so appalled with everything that's crass in American life that we'll sit and be bored for almost three hours and claim to have enjoyed it, just to prove the point?

On the surface, Lean (who also wrote the screenplay) is faithful to Forster's novel, which tells the story of two tourists in India, Mrs. Moore (Ashcroft) and Adela Quested (Judy Davis), and the hubbub they create when Miss Quested accuses an Indian physician, Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee), of attempted rape. They've come to visit Ronny (the likable Nigel Havers), a minor official of the British Empire who is both Mrs. Moore's son and Miss Quested's fiance'; they've also come to see "the real India."

This anthropological purpose is frustrated by the British who've settled here -- they stay studiously separate from the Indians, whom they treat with careless contempt while they amuse themselves with gossip at the club, daft drawing-room comedies and polo matches. The exception is Fielding (the appealing, natural James Fox), principal of the local school, who's shaggily friendly with everyone. Fielding introduces the visitors to chums of his, Aziz and Professor Godbole (Guinness), two real-life natives; and when Miss Quested reiterates her desire to see "the real India," Aziz suggests a picnic at the Marabar Caves, where the purported rape occurs.

Forster's novel had a special immediacy when it was written -- the empire had just begun to disintegrate. More than that, Britishers abroad were Britishers besieged, who exaggerated their national traits to preserve them, to set themselves apart; the milieu automatically suggested itself to the novelist who, better than anyone, critiqued his society with ironic wit and a trademark note of ineffable regret. Almost 40 years after India gained its independence, though, Lean's movie lacks the desperate seriousness underlying Forster's sprightly narrative -- he plays it just for laughs. The agents of empire are self-serious nincompoops and prigs, the Indians cryptic clowns and outrageous sycophants. The satire makes for some mild entertainment, but as politics, the movie has no heft.

Inevitably, a movie can't capture what's best in Forster's novel, the subtlety of his insights (which come mostly in asides), or the delicate tissue constructed of competing points of view; and unless you've read the novel, you haven't the foggiest idea of what Lean is trying to do with its themes. The moon appears in close-up, or a delicate strand of railroad train is engulfed by the darkness, or a procession led by an elephant is dwarfed by the Marabar Caves -- so what?

A reading of the novel afterward reveals that these pictures are meant to represent Forster's theme of how the primordial vastness of India, and the universe, swallows up petty human ambitions and travails. But Lean uses the same visual strategy in showing scenes of no thematic purport whatsoever -- at one point, Fielding orders his driver, "Let's stop for a moment!" and Lean cuts to inspirational prospects of the Himalayas, accompanied by Maurice Jarre's insipid, "symphony on parade" score. All of Lean's compositions have the same weakness for the picturesque, so the shots that are supposed to express a theme just seem like more postcards.

This wouldn't be disastrous, except that one of Forster's symbols of a universe resistant to meaning also figures crucially in the plot -- the echo in the Marabar Caves, which reduces all words, all sounds, to a single "boum." ("Everything exists," Forster writes, "nothing has value.") It is this "boum" that Miss Quested hears when she thinks Aziz is trying to rape her. Lean is too much of an artist to actually. come out and tell us what the "boum" means (or rather, doesn't mean); but in the interests of subtlety, he's simply incomprehensible. With regard to the central action of the story, we're just kept in the dark.

Which is precisely what's so maddening about "A Passage to India." Lean's celebrated "craftsmanship" really amounts to little more than a certain flair for editing (for which he's also credited), an admirable economy in introducing his themes and characters, and a couple of good cinematic tricks he uses to vary his frame expressively, or to enhance the impact of his majestic scenery. But in actually building a story, or orchestrating his actors, "Passage to India" fails. Lean never brings the characters' motivations or emotions to life, so they just seem like props gathered together to make a point about imperialism.

As Miss Quested, Davis earns sympathy in an unsympathetic role. With makeup the color of smudged ivory, her pallor enhanced by the off-white linens she wears, Davis is daringly unattractive for a leading lady; that plainness is emphasized in the book (Aziz is insulted that anyone would think he'd go for such a "hag"), but again, Lean's too tasteful to insult a lady, so an important emotional point is mostly lost. Likewise, Davis' neuroticism, her way of twitching and thrusting her jaw and looking up hungrily beneath the brim of her straw hat, brings to life the ravenous sexuality beneath Miss Quested's decorous exterior; but because Lean never directs Davis' energy specifically toward Aziz, her portrait of repressed desire never informs her hallucination of rape. The most elementary connection remains vague.

Part of the problem is that Banerjee is such a washout as Aziz. Early on, his performance consists simply of trying to make his big eyes bigger, heroically hiking up his eyebrows; after his trial, he becomes a proud Indian nationalist. You never see Aziz's intelligence, so the transition comes out of thin air; worse, the attraction of even a sexually repressed woman for such a mugging worm just seems bizarre. Ashcroft gives a routine performance as Mrs. Moore, all puzzlement and huffing and puffing from fatigue, which never supports the thematic weight Lean forces on her -- she's a sort of "Aunt Bea Goes to Bengal." And exactly what Alec Guinness is up to here remains a mystery.

Again, when you read the book afterward, you realize that Guinness' Godbole is supposed to be the articulate spokesman for the Hinduism that provides the narrator's sensibility; the role required the kind of authority that only appears once in "A Passage to India," in the person of the attorney Amritrao (played by the famous Indian actor Roshan Seth with a magnetic, magisterial presence). But Guinness, who apparently pleaded with Lean not to ask a "Peter Sellers" turn of him (alluding to Sellers' virtuoso parody of an Indian in Blake Edwards' "The Party"), plays Godbole as a stand-up Brahmin comic -- he's supposed to represent some kind of wisdom, but he just seems out of it.

With Hollywood's sense of cultural inferiority, "A Passage to India" is a cinch for at least two Oscars (Lean and Ashcroft), and might even win Best Picture. But as a movie, it's a failure, and not even a noble one. While Forster's novel focuses on the Indians, the movie centers on the British, particularly the women; the Indians themselves are patronized, even when they're exalted. It might seem classy, but it's just business as usual. Passage to India, opening today at area theaters is rated PG.