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 enduring sweep of David Lean’s work owes much to his poeticising of history’s more mundane features into the descant of high adventure, whereas Richard Attenborough dedicated and finely tuned biopic of that beloved nappy-clad pacifist, avers grandeur in search of truth. A tricky principal amongst the shrill intensity of the movies. For all the momentous history (the opening funeral cast just about everyone in India) and striking moments of human intimacy on show, his film is often a doze, lacking the full conviction of a good epic to cut loose.
The subject itself, the godlike Mahatma, that shrewish guru whose only worldly trapping is his pair of wire-rimmed specs, offers up a staggering accomplishment but an unassuming mythology. His passive-aggressive stance in the face of religious conflict and the rigours of both British colonialism and the Indian caste system, consummately investigated by John Briley’s intelligent script, has none of the stirring action or belly-fire of a Lawrence Of Arabia or a Ben-Hur. Hence this three-hour tramp through his life is very talky and slow and deliberately unlovely as Gandhi rises from the campaigning lawyer clamouring for the rights of Indians in Apartheid swept South Africa to an uncompromising figurehead. His determined stance of non-violent confrontation often cruelly lead to violent reprisal, in one of the film’s most searing moments a group of his followers are bloodily beaten down by British soldiers without even flinching.
It is obvious that Attenborough is engaged in a deeply felt labour of love and the film possesses a contained power similar to the man himself; Ben Kingsley, an unknown chosen to play him, does a fine job at assuming iconography, unwilling to epitomise a bland goodness, and exposes his irritating pigheadedness. But in the director’s unwillingness to excite the tale, as if its disapproving subject was keeping a keen eye from whatever heaven he was taken to, the film remains proud but forgettable
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