Sunday 29 June 2014

Movie Review: Gandhi (1982)

A grand biography, Gandhi is the epic story of the humble lawyer who changed the course of history through peaceful means.

The film starts with Mohandas Gandhi's assassination in 1948, shot at close range by a lone gunman. The narrative then rewinds to 1893 in South Africa. Gandhi (Ben Kingsley), a young idealistic lawyer educated in England, is thrown off a train for being a coloured man with the temerity to sit in the first class carriage. This sparks in him a desire for justice, but always through non-violent means. To protest against laws discriminating against Indians in South Africa, he helps to organize meetings, marches and worker walk-outs. Despite being arrested and imprisoned for his activism, he finally pressures the authorities to reverse course. His early experiences bring him into contact with Reverend Andrews (Ian Charleson) and American journalist Vince Walker (Martin Sheen).

Returning to India as a hero but with the Great War raging, Gandhi gradually joins the movement to end Britain's rule over India. He embarks on a long journey to visit the far flung corners of his country, and adopts frugal clothing and habits in solidarity with the poor. He meets other home rule activists including Nehru (Roshan Seth), and steers the movement away from violence and towards active non-cooperation with the British. Emotions are inflamed when British General Dyer (Edward Fox) orders his troops to indiscriminately open fire on unarmed civilians, including women and children, at what became known as the Amritsar massacre.

Gandhi is repeatedly arrested, detained and tried, as the British attempt to curtail his influence, all to no avail. He also embarks on a punishing hunger strike to register his disgust when India's independence movement turns violent. Gandhi's quest and inspirational methods attract the attention of the world, and Life magazine's photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White (Candice Bergen) travels to India to bring him wider international exposure. With World War Two straining Britain's resources, a Gandhi inspired India inexorably moves towards independence, but serious religious divides between Hindus and Muslims threaten to derail the country's progress.

Director and producer Richard Attenborough's multi-decade dream project comes to life as an absorbing experience, as close as a film can come to capturing the mystique of a larger than life and yet most humble man. For three hours, Gandhi charts the course of a remarkable journey from obscurity to global admiration, as a new form of peaceful rebellion is invented, perfected and deployed to shake an empire. Attenborough was rewarded with the Best Director Academy Award, and the film was proclaimed Best Picture.

When the subject matter is astounding, the storytelling does not need to be ostentatious, and Attenborough crafts the film with an earnest, low-key tone, avoiding overblown dramatics. The most powerful scenes come at the smallest of scales, Gandhi's small personal acts speaking volumes about the impact of the individual. His quiet anguish at the passing of his life-long wife Kasturba (Rohini Hattangadi), and the ability of a small man wearing a loincloth to influence the behaviour of millions with hunger strikes and symbolic marches, create the most lasting resonance.

As much as Gandhi's achievements are celebrated, Attenborough and screenwriter John Briley don't shy away from the horror of bloody local conflicts arising with the departure of colonialist powers. What Gandhi and Nehru struggled to achieve through an idealistic lens directly resulted in the fracture of India into three countries, and brutal Hindu versus Muslim violence which made its way back to Gandhi's doorstep.

Visually the film does find some spectacular scenes suitable for an epic about the birth of the world's largest democracy. Gandhi features numerous scenes with mammoth crowds, and the funeral recreation is said to have marshalled a record of more than 300,000 extras. Attenborough also makes good use of the photogenic trains that serve as the spine of India's transportation network. The dramatic and painful re-enactments of the Amritsar massacre  and the brutality of imperialist soldiers clubbing peaceful protesters at a salt depot capture key moments where Britain's moral and actual authority slipped away, setting India on an unalterable course towards home rule.

British actor Ben Kingsley was plucked from obscurity and catapulted to prominence and a Best Actor Academy Award for his role as Gandhi. Kingsley commands the screen for the full three hours, and grows with Gandhi from a young man to an elderly living legend. Kingsley is effectively in every scene, and finds the comfortable space where an actor becomes the revered subject without resorting to mannerisms of exalted nobility.

To populate the British rulers, judges, lawyers, governors, politicians and officers imposing their foreign will on local populations, Gandhi's large cast includes a who's-who of some of Britain's most distinguished actors, including John Gielgud, Trevor Howard, John Mills, Ian Bannen and Nigel Hawthorne. In an early role, Daniel Day-Lewis has a brief appearance as a youth on the streets of South Africa threatening Gandhi for daring to use the sidewalk. Geraldine James portrays Mirabehn, the English woman adopted by Gandhi as his daughter.

A spellbinding achievement about one of the most inspirational figures of the 20th century, Gandhi is an enduring classic.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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