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United Kingdom/India 1982
Directed by
Richard Attenborough
191 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars


Ben Kingsley deservedly won an Oscar for his portrayal of Mahatma Gandhi in Richard Attenborough’s biopic of the iconic Indian leader. Kingsley (real name Krishna Bhanji) launched an impressive  career but in Attenborough's the story plays like a reboot of George Steven’s 1965 film The Greatest Story Ever Told only with Gandhi replacing Christ and the British taking the place of the Romans.

Although in its day it was critically lauded it is a film that like its predecessor impressed more because of its big budget production values (it picked up the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars) and reverential playing to the myth rather than any critical  insight or dramatic nuance. Now that Gandhi is very much a distant figure (overtaken by Nelson Mandela in the spiritual pin-up stakes) and big budget films are a dime a dozen, its sentimental tendentiousness is more apparent.

Following Gandhi’s story from his days as a young lawyer in South Africa in the mid-1890s to his assassination by a Muslim extremist shortly after India gained independence from the British empire in 1947it is a thoroughgoing account of his political rather than private life (his wife barely gets a look in beyond devoted help-mate).  

Somewhat annoyingly the script keeps inserting Anglo-American characters into the narrative  – a clergyman (Ian Charleson), an English female devotee (Geraldine James), an American photographer (Candice Bergen)  -  no doubt to broaden audience appeal but adding nothing of interest whilst the quietly significant smiles of noble people oh-so-modestly making history is considerably overdone. On the upside Attenborough calls on a lot of his colleagues from his acting days like John Mills and Trevor Howard to play the British ruling class types who are portrayed with suitable public-school snootiness.

Even accepting  the pietistic tone, the film loses its way a little in the latter stages when Gandhi has to face the sectarian violence that came with independence the ironic consequence of his non-violent philosophy. It’s rich material with great dramatic potential but Attenborough has pretty much played all his cards by this stage and can only re-iterate already seen motifs. Had the film ended with the achievement of independence this would have been a less obviously eulogistic affair in need of some bracing countervailing perspective.

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