Mohandas K Gandhi, an Indian lawyer working in South Africa, returns home to the conclusion that the British have made his countrymen second clas citizens. He begins non-violent protests, becomes the leader of the nation, and leads his people to freedom.
The British event movie. it’s a dead-end slogan, like one of those World’s Shortest Book titles — The Humility Of James Cameron, The Adult Movie Guide To James Stewart... Kitchen-sink cinema; the odd parochial horror; modest comedies that get big by accident... that’s more our speed. Actually, given the skimpy subsidies, it’s all we can afford; but compared to the all-crushing Hollywood juggernaut, we’re a three-wheeled milkfloat. We don’t shoot in widescreen; we shoot in windscreen.
Intimate drama is something we have a peculiar feel for, so this is hardly a complaint, but, really, what passes for British event cinema nowadays? The new one from Mike Leigh? It wasn’t always like this. Once upon a British film industry, we busted blocks. We had filmmakers who deliberately, defiantly set out to make movies on a massive scale. And everything about Gandhi — which increasingly feels like the last great British epic — is massive. Carol Vorderman would have trouble crunching these numbers: 20 years in the making; a 12-month shoot; 23,000 feet of film a day; 400,000 extras in a single scene; eight Oscars; a 188-minute run-time. The mere prospect of watching Gandhi feels like homework. It’s not a film you just pop on. You clear your diary and schedule it in. In fact, here’s a movie so long that the DVD comes with an intermission. Which would be a great joke if it wasn’t so true.
What with his lengthy CV of weighty historical biopics, it’s tempting to think of Richard Attenborough as a purveyor of cinematic Andrex — his movies tend to be soft, strong and very, very long. Gandhi is undoubtedly his masterwork — and it’s nothing of the sort. Okay, it’s long (very, very), but if you’re after sentiment, you’re knocking on the wrong screen. The backdrop — whether the Amritsar Massacre, the Chauri Chaura riots or World War II — is one of sustained, astonishing, heartbreaking violence. Attenborough doesn’t blink from it, just as his subject didn’t. Perhaps all those vast, gasping, Lean-inspired vistas of India blur the senses a little too effectively, but there’s a steady, pointed anger that makes for an unusually outraged epic.
In fact, strip away the scope and spectacle and what Gandhi boils down to — dramatically at least — is a good, old-fashioned man-against-the-system movie. The first hour and a half is especially adept at maxing the drama from this, and it flies past — the transformation from belligerent lawyer to hardened spiritual guru a totally compelling journey, mostly because his battle against the British Empire seems not just solitary but absolutely futile. It’s a great story of defiance.
That said, the second half is so bulging with big events that its subject gets swamped. There’s a little too much saga, not enough of the man and, as such, it very nearly tumbles into that deadly biopic pit: the one so full of incident that characterisation has to squeeze between the gaps. Note: very nearly. Because Gandhi has... well, you can guess what’s coming.
Attenborough is first and foremost an actor’s director. If there’s a memorable performance in any of his movies, you can bet he had a big hand in it. Still, while it’s hardly a surprise that warhorses of luvviedom John Mills, Trevor Howard, John Gielgud et al deliver solid turns, Dickie’s nurturing and casting of a little-known, movie-virgin RSC actor takes us into transcendent territory. There’s a hyperbole alert ahead of this, but really, if this isn’t the greatest screen performance by a living British actor, God knows what is. Actually, it’s not a performance — it’s an embodiment. Attenborough, whose lunatic drive got the thing made, set out to capture the spirit of Gandhi. Ben Kingsley went one further. He became him.
Gandhi’s message — the movie and the man — is as potent and radical now as it ever was. He remains a total one-off — a relentless pacifist who knew how to fight. Epics with density, complexity and integrity aren’t two-a-penny, less so British ones. Like its inspiration, Lawrence Of Arabia, it’s a grandiose event film that still stirs. You could do worse than make time for it.
Grand in scope, the best thing here is still Sir Ben Kingsley's central performance; the film will always deserve to be seen for this alone.