Christopher Lee in ‘Jinnah’ (1998) reviewed

❉ An epic biopic about the life of the man who founded Pakistan, with a career-best performance by Sir Christopher Lee.

By the time of his death in 2015, Sir Christopher Lee had built an immense reputation for himself. While arguably not the most versatile of actors, he had nonetheless proven himself magnetic in a certain type of role, and become a genuine cinematic icon spanning half a century from his mould-breaking ‘Count Dracula’ for Hammer through to charismatic Bond villain and thence to a major figure in the ‘Star Wars’ franchise and Peter Jackson’s epic vision of ‘The Lord Of The Rings’. Along the way, he gathered further cult status via films as varied as ‘The Wicker Man’, ‘Gremlins II’, ‘Funnyman’, and ‘The Howling II: Stirba – Werewolf Bitch’.

His career was very much defined by figures of the fantastic, the unreal. And yet, before he died, he had pronounced that the best performance of his career – more so than the vampire Count, than the ruthless Scaramanga, even than the heathen Lord Summerisle which he’d been previously wont to label his best performance – was of a very real man, but an amazing one. Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

In brief, Jinnah did something astonishing. Wishing to create a peaceful Muslim nation-state, he did so by becoming the man who founded Pakistan. Although the years since have sadly soured his vision, that immense and ultimately humanitarian ambition cannot be denied. In the words of Professor Stanley Wolpert, “Few individuals significantly alter the course of history. Fewer still modify the map of the world. Hardly anyone can be credited with creating a nation-state. Mohammad Ali Jinnah did all three.”

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It’s certainly an immense story, and one that deserved to be told on film. The obvious route would surely have been to follow the trail blazed by Sir Richard Attenborough in 1982 with his biopic of Gandhi, telling the story as truthfully and plainly as possible, letting the facts of history speak for themselves in the most direct way. But director Jamil Dehlavi and his co-scripter, Akbar S Ahmed, had other ideas.

What they decided to do was simple, but audacious. They told Jinnah’s story from the vantage point of Jinnah’s spirit, after death, discovering that the civil service of the afterlife is dealing with a crash of their whole computer network and that his own ‘life-file’ has been misplaced. As a result, he is called on to review key points in his whole life to determine whether he should be sent to Heaven, or Hell.

That computer network? That’s not a metaphor. We see its equipment in the film. The whole thing is a bizarre, intriguing collision between Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’ and Powell and Pressburger’s ‘A Matter Of Life And Death’. The biopic has been suddenly infused with the elements of outright fantasy, and it grabs our attention with this weird yet winning conceit.

The film, a co-production between Pakistan and the United Kingdom, is as mightily ambitious as such an alliance and such a subject would suggest. As Jinnah’s Guide, played with dignity and sympathy by Shashi Kapoor, leads him from point to point of his life, touching on important junctures both immense and entirely personal, we also meet many other notable players in the events of Reality in the afterlife – Nehru, who opposes Jinnah, Gandhi, who supports him, and Lord Mountbatten – with whom Jinnah has a rather more awkward relationship, as the latter initially supports him in his plans and then later – in Jinnah’s eyes – betrays him comprehensively.

By its very nature, it’s unlikely that any biopic can ever be entirely impartial. Doubtless Mountbatten had what he saw as good and valid reasons for his desertion of Jinnah, but since the latter is understandably the hero of this film it is going to obviously take his side. This leads to a truly inspired climactic scene where Jinnah, resplendent in the robe and wig of a court prosecutor, undertakes that very role as he fights a case in front of a huge celestial audience against Mountbatten regarding his treachery to both Jinnah and Pakistan.

Interestingly, the film doesn’t definitively answer the question of whether Jinnah is bound for salvation or damnation by its finish – instead, it takes a turn towards clumsy but earnest propaganda – although the implication is strong that he will end up in the better place, a man of courage integrity and vision who sought only peace in the most practical ways that he knew. Whether or not the viewer agrees with him, and despite what may have been done by less humane Pakistanis since, he stands revealed as a compassionate and steadfast hero, and Lee’s portrayal does indeed bring out every facet of the man.

He’s ably supported by a fine cast, too, with James Fox’s Mountbatten and Sam Dastor’s Gandhi being particular standouts. For those with a fondness for spotting cult actors in general and Doctor Who-related ones in particular, there are also appearances by Vernon Dobtcheff, Roger Brierley, and Rowena Cooper.

Ultimately, though, it is very much Lee’s film, and it’s oddly gratifying, however much I may love Hammer, James Bond, Star Wars and Tolkien, to discover the performance of his life which he considered the best, and the most important – and to realise that maybe, just maybe, he was absolutely right.

‘It had the best reviews I’ve ever had in my entire career – as a film and as a performance. But ultimately it was never shown at the cinemas.’ – Christopher Lee, October 2004.

Well, thanks to Eureka Entertainment, you can now judge for yourselves. And along the way, you’ll even get to see Gandhi sitting in front of glowing monitor screens and computer consoles in a darkened chamber. What more could you want from a biographical picture?

Pakistan Zindabad, Quid-e-Azam Zindabad.


Jinnah’ is now available from Eureka Entertainment in a Dual Format Blu-ray & DVD edition, RRP £13.99

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