Cinema: Triumph of a Martyr's Will

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GANDHI Directed by Richard Attenborough; Screenplay by John Briley

No matter how vast and tumultuous the crowds assembled for its most spectacular sequences, no matter what the cost and care lavished on its re-creation of vanished epochs, no matter how vividly it realizes the violence of great historical forces caught up in deadly conflict, the epic cinema finally depends on small matters—the touch of a hand, a look in the eyes, a whisper of dialogue—to make a lasting emotional connection with its audience. This is particularly true of films about figures whose claim on the attention of the world is exerted not through force of arms but through force of mind and spirit. The temptation, which has become almost a generic convention, is for film makers to adopt a dehumanizing reverence, which creates a holy void, a sort of white hole, at the center of the film. Meanwhile, they hope that background bustle will distract audiences from noticing that the protagonist seems to be on permanent leave of absence.

It is the singular virtue of Gandhi that its title figure is also a character in the usual dramatic sense of the term. As portrayed by Ben Kingsley, 37, an actor from the Royal Shakespeare Company making his film debut, Gandhi must age some 50 years. In the process he must convert himself from the vigorous, somewhat arrogant, somewhat dandyish young lawyer who first caught the world's attention with his nonviolent resistance to South Africa's racial laws, to the saintly martyr who finally captured the world's conscience as he willed a nation into being. It is impossible to recall an actor who has aged more persuasively over the course of a movie, suggesting more with subtleties of movement than with prodigies at the makeup table the gently graduated taxations of age.

Of course in playing Gandhi, an actor must be less concerned with physical verisimilitude than with spiritual presence, and here Kingsley is nothing short of astonishing. His Gandhi is no mystic, but a man with a practical political sense, an almost sly awareness of other men's motives and how they might be levered to advance his own cause, and, above all, a sense of self-irony. He seems always to be keeping a wary, testing eye on himself, conscious of his own failings, watchful that he not succumb to the vanity of power. Kingsley's performance suggests that Gandhi's ability to lead derived not from the fact that he was different from other men but from his awareness that he was so like them, with only the force of his will to set him apart. In short, he was an example self-made, not born.

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