Skip to main content

He was a man who made humility a simple truth more powerful than empires.

Gandhi
(1982)

Gandhi’s opening text references the importance of trying to find one’s way to the heart of the man in recounting his life, and unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, you couldn’t say Sir Dickie Attenborough succeeded in his enormous epic, duly crowned with the Best Picture Oscar (and BAFTA) for being an enormous epic. It’s a largely reverent, respectful, uninvolved film that mimics the tools of spectacle and canvas from that master of the enormous epic David Lean (who had planned his own version, with, naturally Alec Guinness in the title role; we saw how well that went down in A Passage to India), but entirely fails to inject the proceedings with his sense of narrative surety and grasp of character.


Gandhi, Sir Dickie’s dream project, decades in the attempted making, comes unstuck first and foremost with its screenplay. Attenborough was a resolutely passionless director (that is, in terms of translating his effusive temperament to the screen), but entirely competent at putting a film together provided it had solid foundations; that’s why A Bridge Too Far stands up (William Goldman’s split narrative complemented by canny star casting). At one point in the film, Gandhi correct another’s statement; “I for one have never advocated passive anything”. Presumably he would have taken issue with his biographer’s passive filmmaking, in that case. One could hew positive; one the one hand, Gandhi largely resists the urge to outright veneration when bearing witness to its protagonist. But, on the other, it’s a plod.


Kingsley is formidable, of course, but there is negligible insight into his character’s foibles and emotion life (his celibacy is mentioned in respectful passing by his wife; going unexamined was his predilection for sleeping in the buff with similarly buff teenage girls, all the better to test his spiritual mettle but then, what power- or popularity-crazed figure doesn’t have a few sexual peccadillos, right?) Given the way Ghandi revolves exclusively around Mahatma, at the expense of other main players, there’s precious little empathy for what made him tick. Gandhi is an icon before you see the film, and he’s that same icon after you’ve finished watching it. Which means, for all the shades Kingsley attempts to imbue, there’s no real danger of getting under his character’s skin.


At one point, following an argument with his wife (Rohini Hattangadi), Gandhi self-recriminates (“What’s the matter with me?”) and she consoles “You’re human, only human”. Which goes to the real Nehru’s advice to Sir Dickie not to deify him. But that’s evidently easier said than done. Early in his life, when travelling South Africa, Gandhi is outraged to be thrown off a train (“But I always go first class”), admonished that “There are no coloured attorneys in South Africa”. 


It’s about the only point – the odd off-guard witticism aside – where we feel a driven, motivated figure, the one who makes dramatic capital from claiming injustices must be fought as “we are all children of God”. Quickly after this, like a master architect of his own iconography, Gandhi has donned the outfit and is espousing the platitudes and insights of a beatific saint, the embodiment of the great soul, because that’s his popular identity.


We see his shrewdness as a planner and motivator not just in his choice of clothing (to symbolise that he lives like the poorest; it isn’t covered that his consequent relationship with his own family was fractious, and that in living the example to others he shunned giving his children love, because he magnanimously saw all the world’s children as his) but also in his legalistic diligence. He does not call for a strike, but rather a national day of prayer and fasting, and his personalised Salt March is astute for the implications it holds regarding British rule rather than what one man is doing (illustrated by John Gielgud’s Lord Irwin backtracking decisively over letting him get on with it; “Thank him for his letter, and put him in jail”).


There are of course, the famous words of wisdom (“An eye for an aye only ends up making the whole world blind”), most powerfully conveyed following the Partition of India. Fasting for an end to violence between Hindus and Muslims, a man comes to Gandhi enraged over what he has been brought to; he killed a Muslim child, in vengeance for his murdered son. With Solomon-esque judgement, Gandhi advises that the way to make amends is to adopt an orphan boy, but he must be a Muslim, and must be raised as a Muslim. Unlike many of the instances in the film, where Gandhi says something sage and we nod inwardly, this one actually has raw impact and power, because it’s all over the face of the father.


Akhil Gupta’s contemporary essay on the politics of the film found problems with pretty much everything Attenborough depicted. I was particularly struck by how, in the last half hour, as the great achievement of Gandhi (Gupta stresses that there was probably a balance of reasons for British withdrawal, rather than simply the most-credited one) gives way to the political turmoil and civic unrest that came with creating Pakistan, we had missed out on a vast swathe of the story that should have been a part of this three-hour-plus Mahatma-fest.


Gupta takes issue with Nehru being presented as a Gandhi-yes man, which may be valid, although Roshan Seth’s performance is one of the few supporting roles that actually seems vital and engaged (it’s perhaps rather instructive, but not in a good way, that I ended up thinking “Oh, he was in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” in reaction to several of the cast members). Jinnah (Alyque Padamsee) is simply a bad guy on the fringes, referenced as fermenting discord between religions and so undermining all Gandhi’s good work. These characters should have been fully integrated into the narrative, particularly given that, as Gupta comments, this is a film about Gandhi the political facilitator, not Gandhi the eccentric personality or Gandhi the spiritual leader (while the latter aspect comes into it, it is essentially, as noted, presented through cherry-on-top wordplay).


Often in these sorts of period pieces, the cavalcade of supporting players makes for agreeable diversion, but here it’s less the case as they’re all such “types”. There’s Ian Charleson, fresh from British are coming Oscar glory in Chariots of Fire, Martin Sheen on the cause trail, doing his bit as an American journalist, and Candice Bergen as another. They’re our western “ins” to a different world, probably, in Dickie’s mind, but they didn’t really need to be there at all (look at the far superior – but much less seen and celebrated –  Kundun for the use of technique itself to explore unfamiliar beliefs, customs and territory). 


The Imperial cast of Brit stage stalwarts, led by Gielgud, can’t fail to impress, although few of them can claim anything to get their teeth into (Edward Fox, as an unrepentant mass-slaughterer, is a notable exception – the real General Dyer was thanked by the House of Lords for his patriotic act – and Daniel Day Lewis also shows up for about two minutes as a South African racist).


In many respects, Gandhi is simply symptomatic of the greater malaise suffered by the biopic, fenced in by linearity and professed diligence. It’s even more the case here, though, because Attenborough is such a resolutely unimaginative director (he even has Ravi Shankar provide the score) and lacks any kind of incisiveness over his title character’s legacy or willingness to interrogate his saintliness. As long as that widescreen is chock full of spectacle, it’ll do. It’s much the same with the awards such films foster; importance tends to equate with worth, rather than actual quality.


Gandhi is decent, solid, respectable, but mostly flaccid. I don’t think that’s because there’s some kind of preventative in place, that a film about non-violent resistance is inherently antithetical to good drama, which popularly thrives on conflict (although, I’m sure documenting the leader’s erratic espousals on the subject of pacifism would have spiced things up a bit). Rather, it’s that Attenborough never broke his story, how to position this figure in the narrative so it didn’t simply become the unbesmirchable, faintly anodyne portrait it is.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Move away from the jams.

Aladdin (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was never overly enamoured by the early ‘90s renaissance of Disney animation, so the raves over Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin left me fairly unphased. On the plus side, that means I came to this live action version fairly fresh (prince); not quite a whole new world but sufficiently unversed in the legend to appreciate it as its own thing. And for the most part, Aladdin can be considered a moderate success. There may not be a whole lot of competition for that crown (I’d give the prize to Pete’s Dragon, except that it was always part-live action), but this one sits fairly comfortably in the lead.

He made me look the wrong way and I cut off my hand. He could make you look the wrong way and you could lose your whole head.

Moonstruck (1987)
(SPOILERS) Moonstruck has the dubious honour of making it to the ninth spot in Premiere magazine’s 2006 list of the 20 Most Overrated Movies of all Time. There are certainly some valid entries (number one is, however, absurd), but I’m not sure that, despite its box office success and Oscar recognition, the picture has a sufficient profile to be labelled with that adjective. It’s a likeable, lightweight romantic comedy that can boast idiosyncratic casting in a key role, but it simply doesn’t endure quotably or as a classic couple matchup the way the titans of the genre (Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally) do. Even its magical motif is rather feeble.

You're reading a comic book? What are you, retarded?

Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut (2009)
(SPOILERS) It’s a decade since the holy grail of comic books finally fought through decades of development hell to land on the big screen, via Zach Snyder’s faithful but not faithful enough for the devoted adaptation. Many then held the director’s skills with a much more open mind than they do now – following the ravages he has inflicted on the DCEU – coming as he was off the back of the well-received 300. Many subsequently held that his Watchmen, while visually impressive, had entirely missed the point (not least in some of its stylistic and aesthetic choices). I wouldn’t go that far – indeed, for a director whose bombastic approach is often only a few notches down from Michael Bay (who was, alarmingly, also considered to direct at one point), there are sequences in Watchmen that show tremendous sensitivity – but it’s certainly the case that, even or especially in its Ultimate Cut form and for all the furore the change to the end of the story provoked,…

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

Bleach smells like bleach.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)
(SPOILERS) I’d like to be able to say it was beyond me how Clint’s misery-porn fest hoodwinked critics and the Academy alike, leading to his second Best Picture and Director double Oscar win. Such feting would naturally lead you to assume Million Dollar Baby was in the same league as Unforgiven, when it really has more in common with The Mule, only the latter is likeably lightweight and nonchalant in its aspirations. This picture has buckled beneath the burden of self-appointed weighty themes and profound musings, which only serve to highlight how crass and manipulative it is.

I’d kill you too, Keanu. I’d kill you just for fun, even if I didn’t have to.

Always Be My Maybe (2019)
(SPOILERS) The pun-tastic title of this Netflix romcom is a fair indication of its affably undemanding attributes. An unapologetic riff on When Harry Met Sally, wherein childhood friends rather than college attendees finally agree the best thing to be is together, it’s resolutely determined to cover no new ground, all the way through to its positive compromise finale. That’s never a barrier to a good romcom, though – at their best, their charm is down to ploughing familiar furrows. Always Be My Maybe’s problem is that, decent comedy performers though the two leads may be – and co-writers with Michael Golamco – you don’t really care whether they get together or not. Which isn’t like When Harry Met Sally at all.

You're always sorry, Charles, and there's always a speech, but nobody cares anymore.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)
(SPOILERS) To credit its Rotten Tomatoes score (22%), you’d think X-Men: Dark Phoenix was a travesty that besmirched the name of all good and decent (read: MCU proper) superhero movies, or even last week’s underwhelming creature feature (Godzilla: King of Monsters has somehow reached 40%, despite being a lesser beast in every respect). Is the movie’s fate a self-fulfilling prophecy, what with delayed release dates and extensively reported reshoots? Were critics castigating a fait accompli turkey without giving it a chance? That would be presupposing they’re all sheep, though, and in fairness, other supposed write-offs havecome back from such a brink in the past (World War Z). Whatever the feelings of the majority, Dark Phoenix is actually a mostly okay (twelfth) instalment in the X-franchise – it’s exactly what you’d expect from an X-Men movie at this point, one without any real mojo left and a variable cast struggling to pull its weight. The third act is a bi…

They went out of business, because they were too good.

School for Scoundrels (1960)
(SPOILERS) Possibly the pinnacle of Terry-Thomas’ bounder persona, and certainly the one where it’s put to best caddish use, as he gives eternally feckless mug Ian Carmichael a thorough lesson in one-upmanship, only for the latter to turn the tables when he finds himself a tutor. School for Scoundrels is beautifully written (by an uncredited Peter Ustinov and Frank Tarloff), filled with clever set pieces, a fine supporting cast and a really very pretty object of the competing chaps’ affection (Janette Scott), but it’s Terry-Thomas who is the glue that binds this together. And, while I couldn’t say for sure, this might have the highest “Hard cheese” count of any of his films.

Based on Stephen Potter’s 1947’s humorous self-help bestseller (and subsequent series of -manship books) The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship (or The Art of Winning Games without Actually Cheating), which suggested ungentlemanly methods for besting an opponent in any given field, gam…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…