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

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

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…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Angry man is unsecure.

Hulk (2003)
(SPOILERS) I’m not a Hulk apologist. I unreservedly consider it one of the superior superhero adaptations, admittedly more for the visual acumen Ang Lee brings to the material than James Schamus, Michael France and John Turman’s screenplay. But even then, if the movie gets bogged down in unnecessarily overwrought father-son origins and dynamic, overlaid on a perfectly good and straightforward core story (one might suggest it was change for the sake of change), once those alterations are in place, much of the follow through, and the paralleling of wayward parents and upright children, or vice versa, translates effectively to the screen, even if the realisation of the big green fella is somewhat variable.

I do… very competitive ice dancing.

Justice League (2017)
(SPOILERS) Superheroes, and superhero movies, trade in hyperbole, so it shouldn’t be surprising that DC’s two releases this year have been responded to in like, only each at opposite ends of the spectrum. Wonder Woman was insanely over-praised in the rush to fete a female superhero finally leading a movie, crushing all nuanced criticism in its wake. Justice League, meanwhile, has been lambasted on the basis that it’s more of the same as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, only worse – to the extent there have been calls for a Zach Snyder Director’s Cut, which is quite an extent, as extents go – as it’s guilty of being an unholy clash of styles, grimdark Zach scowling in one corner and quip-happy Joss pirouetting in the other. And yes, the movie is consequently a mess, but it’s a relatively painless mess, with the sense to get in and get out again before the viewer has enough time to assess the full extent of the damage.

That be what we call scringe stone, sir.

Doctor Who The Ribos Operation (1978)
Season 16 is my favourite season, so I’m inevitably of the view that it gets a bad rap (or a just plain neglected one), is underrated and generally unappreciated. Of its six stories, though, The Ribos Operation is probably the one, on balance, that receives the most accolades (on some days, it’s The Pirate Planet; many moons ago, back when DWAS was actually a thing of some relevance, The Stones of Blood won their season poll; there are also those who, rightly, extol the virtues of The Androids of Tara). I’m fully behind that, although truthfully, I don’t think there’s an awful lot between the first four stories. Why, I even have great affection for the finale. It’s only “KROLL! KROLL! KROLL! KROLL!” that comes up a bit short, which no doubt makes me a no good dryfoot, but there you are. If that Robert Holmes script is on the threadbare side, through little fault of his own, The Ribos Operation is contrastingly one of his very best, a hugely satisfyi…

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Sometimes when you take people away, they don't come back.

The Ward (2010)
(SPOILERS) I’d felt no particular compunction to rush out and see The Ward (or rent it), partly down to the underwhelming reviews, but mostly because John Carpenter’s last few films had been so disappointing, and I doubted a decade away from the big screen would rejuvenate someone who’d rather play computer games than call the shots. Perhaps inevitably then, now I have finally given it a look, it’s a case of low expectations being at least surpassed. The Ward isn’t very good, but it isn’t outright bad either.

While it seems obvious in retrospect, I failed to guess the twist before it was revealed, probably because I was still expecting a supernatural element to be realised, it being a Carpenter movie. But then, this doesn’t feel very much like a Carpenter movie. It doesn’t have a Carpenter score (Mark Killian) or screenplay (Michael and Shawn Rasmussen) and it doesn’t have Gary B Kibbe as lenser (Yaron Orbach). I suspect the latter explains why it’s a much more professi…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You diabolical mastermind, you.

The Avengers Season 4 Ranked – Worst to Best
Season Four is generally held up as the pinnacle of The Avengers, and it certainly maintains the greatest level of consistency in the run. Nevertheless, as I noted a few reviews back, one viewer’s classic is another’s ho-hum with this show, perhaps because it doesn’t elicit the same kind of exhaustive fandom to establish any level of consensus as some series. There follows my Worst to Best ranking of the season, told mostly in pictures. The index for full episode reviews can be found here.