The Good: Great story, Wonderful character development, Amazing acting, Incredible DVD bonus features
The Bad: Intermission, A few storytelling gaps
The Basics: A truly great biopic, Gandhi captures the essence of the live of Mahatma Gandhi and his quest to nonviolently free India from British rule.
There are any number of films that I would openly and eagerly acknowledge as great that I would never want to watch more than once. So, it is with increasing pleasure that I encounter new-to-me films that live up to their hyped greatness that I would actually want to watch again and again. Gandhi is one of those films. I originally saw Gandhi on video when I was far too young to appreciate the film. Now, I watched the film with a more developed political acumen and the truth is, I cannot wait to make this part of my permanent collection. Gandhi is a perfect film and on the two-disc DVD set, it is an extraordinary work.
That said, while I enjoyed Gandhi in a highbrow way with an artistic appreciation and a sense of political intelligence that has grown in me since my youth, I was surprised by how frequently I geeked out at the film. When director Richard Attenborough appeared on screen to introduce Gandhi, I recognized him from his acting in Jurassic Park. Similarly, I was exceptionally pleased to see a very young Martin Sheen appear on screen. Sheen, who dazzled me from The West Wing (reviewed here!), appeared early in the film as the reporter, Walker, and I squealed in a way that would be embarrassing, had anyone been with me at the time. Gandhi is a biography of the Indian leader Mohandas (or Mahatma, the name is credited both ways on the film) Gandhi and it is based on history; this review is simply of the Richard Attenborough film Gandhi, not historical fact. As such, some discrepancies may exist in the "character" in the film vs. the historical figure. That said, Attenborough and writer John Briley do a great job of inserting recognizable quotes from Mohandas Gandhi into the film.
As a young lawyer, Mohandas Gandhi is called to help mediate a dispute in British South Africa when he is thrown off a train for sitting in his first class cabin. Furious about this, Gandhi leads a demonstration where he encourages the nonwhite citizens of the British Empire to burn their passbooks, in defiance of the unjust law. This leads to the change in law and Gandhi returns to India as a hero. After riding the rails all around India, Gandhi changes the movement of the nationalists in India toward nonviolent resistance and a movement that will benefit the common Indian, as opposed to just the educated elite.
His popularity growing, Gandhi helps to bring the Muslim and Hindu factions of India together to resist the British influence together. Arrested for petty crimes and protests, Gandhi is viewed as a hero in his homeland. Stripping himself of everything but his homespun garments, he walks around India organizing protests, preaching nonviolent resistance and confronting the systems which keep India enslaved to the British. With his wife and friends, he works to end tyranny and make a free India.
Gandhi openly acknowledges that this is not the complete story of Mohandas Gandhi and the end of the British imperial influence there, but rather the highlights of the life of Gandhi. From the outset, the film wisely emphasizes that Gandhi held no political or religious office and Attenborough captures well both the emotions of the unified Muslim and Hindu Indians, as well as the tragedy that comes when India is divided up. Every riot is filmed with a mood of frustration and the soundtrack by Ravi Shankar and George Fenton is understated and makes an emotional resonance of the loss of humanity whenever violence breaks out. The only aspect of the film that truly feels less inspired than it ought to is the intermission at the midpoint of the movie (I suppose in 1982, moviegoers didn't want to sit for three hours straight).
Gandhi is a great story and the triumph of the film is that Attenborough and Briley make a conflict that is essentially philosophical cinematic. The movie looks great throughout, despite a surprisingly bleak color palate dominated by tan, brown and white. For a film packed with people talking for long periods of time, the movie always has a sense of movement to it and this makes it a great use of the medium. As well, the film does not shy away from the difficulty of violence. This makes Gandhi an unsettling PG film; people walk into the bats of soldiers and as the film progresses, riots between Hindu and Muslims are graphically depicted. Attenborough gets great mileage out of his extras in that he captures mobs of people looking furious in ways that are unsettling to watch.
What makes Gandhi so great a story is not just the plot of resistance and fighting a good fight, but rather the characters. Mohandas Gandhi is a great historical and cinematic figure who has a compelling journey. Giving up wealth and status, Gandhi takes a moral stand. He is accompanied by his wife, Kasturba, who takes up social causes for the women, which Mohandas openly supports. Those looking for a strong female protagonist will find it in Kasturba, as she takes his place when Gandhi is arrested or unable to speak. Similarly, the film does a great job of fleshing out characters like Nehru, who rises with Gandhi and becomes the political leader to parallel Mohandas's philosophical growth.
When it comes to Gandhi, there is an amazing cast, but there is only one role that truly blows viewers out of the water. That is the performance by Sir Ben Kingsley and he is absolutely amazing. Just as people came to see Frank Langella as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon, Kingsley takes on the role of Gandhi against the prejudices of common sense. Deeply tanned and with contacts, the usually bulkier actor is slimmed down into the role of the familiar-looking social leader and the resemblance becomes uncanny. Kingsley simply IS Gandhi from the moment he first appears on screen and there is not a moment of the film where his facade and cool slip.
On DVD, Gandhi has an amazing two-disc special edition. The first disc is all the film and features a commentary track with Attenborough talking about the production, sometimes gushing more about it than actually providing useful information. But the second disc has nine featurettes on the historical figure of Gandhi and the making of the film and it is an amazing resource for those who are interested in the leader or the movie. As well, there is a treasure trove of historical footage of the actual Gandhi and a great interview wherein Kingsley speaks about Gandhi and making the film. Everything one could ever want to know about the film is here on this two-disc DVD and it looks and sounds great on DVD.
This is an essential DVD for anyone who loves world history and anyone who is prepared to be entertained and enlightened by the story of a truly great historical figure. Gandhi is an inspiring story of a man leading a nation to stand up for itself and is well worth the time and attention of anyone who loves great cinema.
[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this is part of my Best Picture Project available here! Please check it out!]
For other historical dramas, please visit my reviews on:
Charlie Wilson's War
Flash Of Genius
Memoirs Of A Geisha
For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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