Make the Case: 5 Essential Ben Kingsley Movies
In the newest edition of Make the Case, Gabriel guides us through some of the best Ben Kingsley movies you need to see.
Make the Case lists choices chronologically, rather than in any order of quality. Picks reflect film acting roles only. If the actor in question also directed the movie, that’s purely a coincidence, and it plays no part in the film’s inclusion.
In the 2000s alone, (Sir) Ben Kingsley has amassed around thirty-five credits in film and television. Few actors can claim to have the kind of filmography he has built up, beginning with Gandhi, which won him an Oscar for Best Actor.
For that matter, few Best Actor winners can claim a film career even remotely similar to his. Eclectic doesn’t even begin to describe it. Whether Kingsley is just one of those guys who has to maintain a certain lifestyle, or if he really does see the value in scripts like What Planet Are You From or BloodRayne, I can’t say. He just seems like an actor who is up for just about anything. Some actors should say no a little more frequently than they do. You can make that argument for Kingsley, but part of me doesn’t want to. Even in terrible movies (three of his 2008 film performances were nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actor), I’m still usually thinking that he was fine.
Barring a good performance, there is also a strange novelty to Kingsley’s unpredictable career path. You can see him appearing in everything from Sexy Beast, to The Love Guru, to 2004’s Thunderbirds, to Scorsese films like Shutter Island and Hugo. He’s one of the most prolific Best Actor winners of all time. If nothing else, we live in a world in which a very good actor like Ben Kingsley is game to do anything his line of work offers.
Assuming you’re a fan of (Sir) Ben, there is something ludicrously comforting about that. Most of the time, it means a performance you’ll respond to in the positive. Occasionally, he rises to a level in which there are very few peers.
It’s kind of great that in a single year, he can cover the entire spectrum of quality.
1. Gandhi (1982)
I went back and forth on including Gandhi, which was only Kingsley’s second feature film appearance. Up to Gandhi, he had largely worked in theater and television. Gandhi won him an Oscar for a largely heroic portrayal of Mahatma Gandhi. If you know enough about the man, you know that there were several deeply problematic elements to his personality and work. At the very least, he was a pretty phenomenal racist.
Still, even with all of that in mind, and even as we realize that Gandhi as a film is largely a pretentious bore, the quiet charisma within Ben Kingsley’s performance is undeniable. It drives the movie so intensely, we almost forget that a great deal of this movie is boring, sloppy, and shallow. So in other words, to get to Kingsley’s performance, which gives us a profound understanding of how Gandhi amassed such a following in the first place, we have to put up with a lot.
Is it worth it? If you want a crash course in Ben Kingsley’s range and depth, I would say so. It says a lot about a performance that largely remains riveting, even as everything else in the movie becomes tedious garbage.
2. Bugsy (1991)
We’re skipping a pretty lengthy body of work, jumping from 1982 to 1991. For one thing, it was a pretty bitter battle between this and 1986’s Turtle Diary. I chose Bugsy in the end because it’s a performance that suggests as much as it shows. It’s fun watching Kingsley bounce dialog with Warren Beatty. More than that, Kingsley’s performance as mafia accountant Meyer Lansky is a great example of an effective, low-key performance in an epic narrative. His work here is frequently more interesting than anyone else on the screen, including stars Beatty and Annette Benning.
Compared to the flashier performances in the film, Kingsley is almost minimalist. It almost gets lost in the shuffle of everything the packs into 2 hours and change. Almost, but not quite. Whether he meant to or not, Ben Kingsley is the real star of Bugsy.
3. Death and the Maiden (1994)
With only five movies to compile this column, you sometimes have to make a lot of annoying cuts. We’re definitely having that problem here.
Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden, which also stars Stuart Wilson and Sigourney Weaver (one of her best, as well) may qualify as the controversial choice. Really, it depends on two things. If you think Polanski’s a hack, this movie probably won’t change your mind, as phenomenal as Ben Kingsley is. If you have a moral objection to a convicted rapist being allowed to continue making art (which he is still widely celebrated for), then you’re going to want to skip ahead.
If you need a specific film to slot over this one, I’d recommend Sneakers, Searching for Bobby Fisher, or Dave, if you want to stay in the 1990s. All of those films feature performances from Kingsley that I would certainly qualify as great, or at least, a great deal of fun.
For everyone else, Death and the Maiden has considerable potential to be one of great cinematic mindfucks of your life. Beyond Kingsley’s complex, breathtaking performance as a man who may or may not be one of the great human monsters still at large, you have a film with an ending that is constantly left to doubt. Death and the Maiden utilizes doubt so well, you’ll cross over into anxiety. The performances lend a lot to that gradual, marvelous intensity. Kingsley’s performance, particularly when it’s combined with Weaver’s, is a crucial part of this film’s power.
4. Sexy Beast (2000)
Sexy Beast is a pretty good crime drama. It’s just Kingsley’s performance as professional psychopath Don Logan tends to overshadow everything else about this film. To a point, that’s fair. Kingsley’s Don Logan belongs to that disconcerting group of movie monsters. He’s very clearly a horrible man, but Kingsley finds a singular way to express much of that with a darkly humorous style. Only occasionally does it go over the top. Even at that point, Don is still far and away the most memorable element to a very good movie. Jonathan Glazer’s direction for his first shot at a feature maintains a formidable pace. You also have to remember that both Ray Winstone and Ian McShane respectively deliver some of the best turns of their respective careers.
Still, even as we acknowledge that Don Logan is a malevolent hurricane of violence and obscenities (watching Kingsley string a dozen swear words together is pretty great), he remains the central figure for Sexy Beast. Certainly, he takes control of the show from the moment he arrives on the screen.
5. Hugo (2011)
Again, with only five movies to choose, we’re stuck with a ton of noteworthy leftovers. You Kill Me, The Wackness (despite his Golden Raspberry nomination), House of Sand and Fog, and even Iron Man 3 are all good examples of Kingsley continuing to do good stuff in the latter stages of his career.
Hugo is simultaneously one of the strangest films Martin Scorsese has made so far, as well as being one of the most obvious films he could ever make. It’s sophisticated enough for adults who need to believe that sophistication matters in film above all other qualities. At the same time, it is innocent enough, perhaps even universal enough, for a message and tone that can appeal to most kids. It’s difficult to describe how Hugo consistently makes this strange mixture of elements come together, but it’s worth watching for yourself.
Much of the energy of the film comes from the visuals, and from a general atmosphere that establishes magic as a credible force in the universe. We get pretty deep into these things with Hugo, and we forget the slew of great actors and actresses who populate the cast. The list includes Asa Butterfield as the child protagonist Hugo, Chloë Grace Moretz, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Ray Winstone, Sacha Baron Cohen (best performance to date), and many others. Ben Kingsley as a somewhat fictional version of film pioneer Georges Méliès is perhaps the best performance in a very good batch. I’m willing to say so. His time on the screen provides the film with another significant emotional layer to the story. Most impressively with Hugo is how the visual wonders of the film never falter, even as attention is paid to character and story.
Even as Kingsley leaves his mark on Hugo with one of the best performances of his career, the film is still gorgeous. Even as he plays Méliès as a man guarded and desperate to change that, Hugo is still a visually spectacular film. It’s so rare to see a movie aspire to be several things at once, and then succeeding in that. It’s even better to watch Kingsley’s unforgettable performance within that.