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.




Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.