Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Ben Kingsley,
Candice Bergen, Edward Fox, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard, John Mills, Martin
Director: Richard Attenborough
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Features: See Review
Length: 191 Minutes
Release Date: February 17, 2009
“He offered the world a way out of madness.”
More than a quarter century after its release, Gandhi stands as a landmark film…in many ways, the last of its kind. We don’t see much in the way of full-scale epics on the big screen anymore, made in the old school ways of actually populating enormous crowd scenes with hundreds of thousands of extras and taking the camera painstakingly to places where real authenticity would radiate from every frame.
That’s on the technical level. The true masters of the epic film, like David Lean, Cecil B. DeMille and others, knew instinctively that scope was only impressive when viewed through a microscope of humanity. And Sir Richard Attenborough, who spent a good twenty years of his life making this movie a reality, brought all of the masters’ tutelage together in one sumptuous, expansive drama about the most humble of men.
That man was Mohandas K. Gandhi (Kingsley), an Indian man educated in Britain as a lawyer who eventually changed the course of both nations and the world with his words, deeds and spirit. And three hours of time is well spent in order to discover this man and his life in a beautifully intimate way.
As a young barrister in South Africa, Gandhi found the sting of discrimination early on…though a British subject, he was treated as no different from those with black skins, and gets unceremoniously thrown off a train for sitting in the first class seat he had rightly paid for.
This awakens his sense of justice, and his ever-present spiritual nature guided him in the ways he dealt with it. Protesting the unfair laws in South Africa brought punishment upon himself, and to an extent, embarrassment to the British, but taking the words of Christ literally, he turned the other cheek and used it as a show of strength instead of weakness.
Gandhi was Hindu, but he had knowledge and appreciation for all major religions, and when he returned to India, his own people became his focus. India had been under British rule for some time, and this quiet but striking little man was ready to show the West what passive resistance and non-cooperation without violence could achieve.
It was a difficult way to make a point. Gandhi spent his time in prisons, and his people didn’t always fully get the message. They could only be confronted with actual violence for so long before fighting back. When that happened, Gandhi took the blame and engaged in a fast that nearly killed him to implore God to stop the Indian people from their resistance.
Independence would come, but not without problems. Being mostly Hindu with a smaller Muslim population, there were those who wanted to see the faiths separate, and many who would resort to brutality to see their goal. An aging Gandhi would risk everything to bring peace, pride and success to his people. And in the end, it would actually cost him everything.
Ben Kingsley richly deserved his Oscar for his breakout performance, injecting Gandhi with a humble but hypnotic charisma. He took the words of the father of India and gave them life, and ensured they would continue to echo long after the great leader’s death.
And it has to be considered a breakout film for Richard Attenborough as well. Though the unassuming director gave most of the credit for the success of his film to the real Gandhi, one can’t discount his passion, courage and attention to detail. He not only directed, but produced, and even spent a couple of decades raising the money himself to realize his vision. His Oscar was well-deserved too, and the 8 statuettes the movie took home remains the most for any British film.
I would guess that somewhere in every true movie lover’s heart, there is a bit of sadness that the era of the epic is at a close. They still make ‘em big, but with a lot of technical help and computer generated images to achieve the result. There’s no need to pour 400,000 people onto the streets of India to re-enact a funeral scene these days. And that’s a shame, because films like Gandhi wouldn’t be the same without such scale and work.
And I think that only that kind of love, attention to detail and meticulous craftsmanship could have really driven home for audiences the rich, loving humanity of one of the 20th century’s most amazing individuals. It was the right film at the right time, and it celebrated a piece of geopolitical history while bringing a piece of cinematic history to a dramatic close.
BONUS TRIVIA: Look for Daniel Day-Lewis in a small role in the early South African part of the movie.
Films from the 80s still seem to me to be the most problematic in terms of modern digital presentations, and though Gandhi looks beautiful on Blu-ray, it’s not without problems. From time to time, you can’t help but notice some grain or a bit of shimmer in the backgrounds. For the most part, however, the extraordinary breadth of the imagery renders with terrific color and detail. The funeral scene should be seen in high definition or not at all.
The audio is satisfactory, with many crowd scenes opening up the front and rear stages. The score is fantastic, and the dialogue is well rendered, but in quieter moments, seems a bit thin sounding, probably from age. Not much of a complaint, though, and overall, the TrueHD presentation works quite well.
This double disc set boasts plenty of extras…on the first disc, you get an introduction and a commentary from Sir Richard Attenborough, along with a terrific picture-in-picture graphics track that follows the legacy of the real Gandhi as you watch.
The second disc has interviews with Attenborough and Kingsley and nine production featurettes, all of which are enlightening and most of which are presented in HD. There is some newsreel footage of Gandhi and a photo montage on the making of the movie. Both discs are also equipped with BD LIVE.
Gandhi is an epic among epics; the right film for the right subject matter at just the right time in history. They don’t make them like this anymore, and that’s a bit of a shame.