No scene in Gandhi is as suggestive as Dennis Miller’s joke about the Mahatma reaching inner serenity by locking himself inside a closet and shouting “motherfucker” for one hour every day. Richard Attenborough’s polished, thoroughly safe—and, consequently, Oscar-garlanded—veneration of the great political and spiritual Indian leader has no room for contradiction, so here Gandhi (Ben Kingsley in his first major role) is first seen at his assassination and subsequent funeral; the film may rewind to his earlier days, but it continues as one long embalming procedure. The picture was a dream project for the filmmaker for more than two decades, and it’s no surprise that it takes the shape of a hallowed pamphlet, wafting from one historical event to another—the early humiliation as a “coolie barrister,” the activism in South Africa, the Amritsar Massacre of 1919, the Dandi Salt March of 1930, the “Quit India” resolution—in a cloud of incense. Attenborough’s heartfelt admiration for the man’s philosophy of resistance through peace is indisputable, yet it is expressed exclusively in conventional coffee-book epic tropes that render it a swollen underdog tale, with Gandhi as the exotic center of a huge, guest-star cast of Hollywood Yanks (Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen) lending liberal cred and old-pro Brits (Edward Fox, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard) supplying Imperial villainy. Though Kingsley’s saturnine poise is much more interesting in roles which call for varying degrees of slipperiness (Death and the Maiden, Sexy Beast), he nevertheless manages to bring shades into the inherently monochromatic saintliness of the role with life-sized, profoundly felt gravity and dignity, all while executing that marvelous, peculiarly British trick (remember Robert Donat in Goodbye, Mr. Chips) of seeming to age from within. Of the faux-David Lean white elephants that proliferated in the early ‘80s, Gandhi is less personal than Reds, but also less complacent than Chariots of Fire and less doddering than Lean’s own orderly post-colonial apologia, A Passage to India; it now exists in that dreary realm of antiseptic Best Picture Oscar winners, duly respected and revisited exclusively for school assignments.
- Columbia Pictures
- 191 min
- Richard Attenborough
- John Briley
- Ben Kingsley, Candice Bergen, Edward Fox, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard, John Mills, Martin Sheen, Ian Charleson, Athol Fugard, Günther Maria Halmer, Saeed Jaffrey, Geraldine James, Alyque Padamsee, Amrish Puri, Roshan Seth, Rohini Hattangadi, Ian Bannen, Richard Griffiths, John Clements, Nigel Hawthorne, Michael Hordern, Om Puri, Shreeram Lagoo
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