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

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.

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…

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

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…

As I heard my Sioux name being called over and over, I knew for the first time who I really was.

Dances with Wolves (1990)
(SPOILERS) Kevin Costner’s Oscar glory has become something of a punching bag for a certain brand of “white saviour” storytelling, so much so that it’s even crossed over seamlessly into the SF genre (Avatar). It’s also destined to be forever scorned for having the temerity to beat out Goodfellas for Best Picture at the 63rdAcademy Awards. I’m not going to buck the trend and suggest it was actually the right choice – I’d also have voted Ghost above Dances, maybe even The Godfather Part III – but it’s certainly the most “Oscar-friendly” one. The funny thing, on revisit, is that what stands out most isn’t its studiously earnest tone or frequent but well-intentioned clumsiness. No, it’s that its moments of greatest emotional weight – in what is, after all, intended to shine a light on the theft and destruction of Native American heritage – relate to its non-human characters.

Sorry I’m late. I was taking a crap.

The Sting (1973)
(SPOILERS) In any given list of the best things – not just movies – ever, Mark Kermode would include The Exorcist, so it wasn’t a surprise when William Friedkin’s film made an appearance in his Nine films that should have won Best Picture at the Oscars list last month. Of the nominees that year, I suspect he’s correct in his assessment (I don’t think I’ve seen A Touch of Class, so it would be unfair of me to dismiss it outright; if we’re simply talking best film of that year, though, The Exorcist isn’t even 1973’s best horror, that would be Don’t Look Now). He’s certainly not wrong that The Exorcistremains a superior work” to The Sting; the latter’s one of those films, like The Return of the King and The Departed, where the Academy rewarded the cast and crew too late. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is the masterpiece from George Roy Hill, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, not this flaccid trifle.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Poor A. A. Milne. What a ghastly business.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
The absolutely true story of how P. L. Travers came to allow Walt Disney to adapt Mary Poppins, after 20 years’ persistent begging on the latter’s part. Except, of course, it isn’t true at all. Walt has worked his magic from beyond the grave over a fairly unremarkable tale of mutual disagreement. Which doesn’t really matter if the result is a decent movie that does something interesting or though-provoking by changing the facts… Which I’m not sure it does. But Saving Mr. Banks at least a half-decent movie, and one considerably buoyed by the performances of its lead actors.

Actually, Mr. Banks is buoyed by the performances of its entire cast. It’s the script that frequently lets the side down, laying it on thick when a lighter touch is needed, repeating its message to the point of nausea. And bloating it out not so neatly to the two-hour mark when the story could have been wrapped up quite nicely in a third less time. The title itself could perhaps be seen as rubbi…

Everything has its price, Avon.

Blake's 7 4.1: Rescue

Season Four, the season they didn’t expect to make. Which means there’s a certain amount of getting up to speed required in order for “status quo” stories to be told. If they choose to go that route. There’s no Liberator anymore as a starting point for stories; a situation the show hasn’t found itself in since Space Fall. So where do they go from here? Behind the scenes there’s no David Maloney either. Nor Terry Nation (I’d say that by this point that’s slightly less of an issue, but his three scripts for Season Three were among his best).

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…