The year is 1948 and as India and Pakistan collapse into chaos, the father of the latter is seen as Mohammed Ali Jinnah (Christopher Lee), but he is ailing badly. He did not wish to go public with this, but he is suffering from tuberculosis which is soon to prove fatal, leaving his nation without the man who ushered through its independence from both India and the United Kingdom and as he begins to pass away his fears for the future of his people only grow. He has tried to be a moderate voice and resist extremism, but the independence movement, deliberately or otherwise, has propagated such fanaticism and it is costing lives across the subcontinent. So as he finally dies and reaches the afterlife, how will he be judged?
Towards the end of his life, when asked, and sometimes unprompted, Sir Christopher Lee would say he believed his finest performance had been in this film as the effective founder of modern Pakistan, Jinnah. He was immensely proud of this role and having the chance to play such an important man, though in real life Jinnah had been overshadowed by Mahatma Gandhi, and so it was down the years when Indian independence was mentioned it was he who dominated the conversation, not least because Richard Attenborough had created an Oscar-winning film about him that cemented the view of this leader as a saint, or Hindu equivalent of same. Therefore this effort couldn't help but look like a corrective to that blockbuster.
This was certainly not a blockbuster, however, as it had difficulty finding a release, proving controversial in its native Pakistan for casting a white Westerner as Jinnah, and not only that the man best known for being Dracula in multiple horror flicks too. It was a bit like getting Robert Englund to play Abraham Lincoln: there's no doubt that he could do it and probably make a pretty decent fist of it, but he carried a lot of baggage from his screen persona that would have too many struggling to take him seriously. However, Lee was not precisely a horror actor exclusively, he was famous for his fantastical roles certainly but he had many strings to his bow and he was trained as a serious dramatic actor.
Whether he was correct in his belief that Jinnah was his greatest film is a matter of debate, mind you, as while there was nothing wrong with his performance, he was respectful and embodied a stoicism that contributed well to the character, there were too many eccentric touches added by director Jamil Dehlavi to bring his story up to date. Apparently taking a leaf out of A Matter of Life and Death, we saw Jinnah arrive in the afterlife which turns out to be a library run by Shashi Kapoor who is lamenting the new introduction of computers to his halls, for he is having trouble operating them. For the tale of such an important historical figure to be sidetracked by the need for an IT technician was a strange choice to say the least, and though it gave the film its excuse to go back over Jinnah's life to assess it, it was not quite successful as a narrative device.
We would return to such elements again, including a scene where Gandhi (Sam Dastor) and Nehru (Robert Ashby) were in a television studio at the mixing desk, again a brave step but a distraction from the main themes. Those were the value of Jinnah's endeavours, which unsurprisingly the film comes down on the side of positivity about, though interestingly not without qualification. That extremism that would emerge to blight the world is very much part of the story, as Jinnah is shown to be progressive, believing in the benefits of educating and valuing women as equal citizens to men, for example, not something the fundamentalists agreed with, though he was not above drawing back from a certain prejudice himself when his daughter marries a non-Muslim against his wishes, even though he married a non-Muslim (Indira Varma) himself. It's good that these contradictions were illustrated, as it deepened the personality in what could have been a hagiography, and it did not pull away from criticising Lord Mountbatten (James Fox) nor Gandhi for their part in their own ruthless self-interest posing as the common good. But there were patches where it was a little dry about some very emotive incidents, and a few of its decisions were dubious. That aside, a valuable response to Attenborough's version. Music by Nigel Clarke and Michael Csányi-Wills.
[There were extras on the rare DVD version, but Eureka's Blu-ray has none. Nevertheless, those interested will find a solid presentation of the film alone.]