Movie biographies of historical or highly romantic characters either stand or fall with the actor playing the title role. Without Peter O’Toole, Lawrence of Arabia might have been little more than a collection of beautiful desert vistas. Dr. Zhivago, on the other hand, lumbers along because Omar Sharif does. Historical or highly romantic figures are, above all, charismatic. They demand that actors portraying them have the same quicksilver that pulls an audience to the character like a magnet. In Gandhi a virtually unknown actor named Ben Kingsley has that quality and he transforms the movie into a towering achievement. Not for a moment is he dwarfed by this expensive, 3 */2-hour epic about one of this century’s protean political and philosophical leaders. Kingsley’s prodigious portrayal of the mahatma is stunning in its naturalism (he moves exactly the way Gandhi does in newsreels), hypnotic in the power of its concentration and witty in its asides (there is always a delayed reaction before Gandhi laughs at a joke).
While director Richard Attenborough has wisely kept Gandhi revolving around Kingsley, he has given the film a stately epic sweep. Some scenes are indelibly spectacular, such as the wholesale slaughter of hundreds of Sikhs protesting British rule in India, or Gandhi’s funeral itself—a swarm of mourners. At times, Gandhi’s images are too carefully composed, and the spectacle cannot compare with the grandeur Kingsley invests in a simple gesture as he sits at a loom spinning his own clothes and making history.
The film follows the mahatma’s career from 1893, when the up-and-coming young lawyer is thrown off a South African train for being “colored.” Gandhi’s consciousness is immediately altered; from that moment on, an intensity of purpose never leaves Kingsley’s eyes. John Briley’s highly literate and generally laconic script suggests, as does Kingsley, that Gandhi’s belief in nonviolent aggression—shaming the oppressor by refusing to fight back— was the way he coped with his own rages. His repression of his own desires (he became celibate) seemed to fortify him, giving him the extreme sense of control he needed to hold sway over millions of Indians.
While never exalting Gandhi to sainthood, the film nevertheless neglects to mention some of the more fascinating, though less wholesome, contradictions in the man. He despised missionaries and yet one (played here by Ian Charleson) remained a fast friend. Though he was almost singlehandedly responsible for instigating India’s independence, he supported India’s caste system. And feeling that his son was conceived in lust, Gandhi refused to speak to him for most of his life; the son became a dissolute and an alcoholic. Clearly, some of Gandhi’s warts benefited from cosmetics. It is strange, too, that there is only one glimpse of India’s horrifying poverty, and a rather sanitized one at that. As well, members of the supporting cast give some colorless performances. John Gielgud as Lord Irwin, the British viceroy (who was actually a much younger man than Gielgud), Martin Sheen as a “composite” journalist and Candice Bergen as Margaret Bourke-White, Life magazine’s celebrated photojournalist, who was visiting with him when he was assassinated, are all flat.
As a whole, Gandhi is never less than intelligent in dealing with the events and facts with which it chooses to deal, and there is never a boring moment. Looking like an ancient baby in his homespun, Kingsley has a sparkle in his eyes—a warm, sensuous glow—that captures the power that Gandhi exerted over his multitudes.
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