– Summary –
Director : Justin Chadwick
Year Of Release : 2013
Principal Cast : Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaan Moosa, Fana Mokoena, Jamie Bartlett, Terry Pheto.
Approx Running Time : 146 Minutes
Synopsis: Charting the life of South African icon Nelson Mandela, from his early ages to his work for the ANC, his imprisonment, relationship with Winnifred Mandela, and his eventual release to become South African President after the fall of Apartheid.
What we think : Mandela aims high, and certainly delivers some moments of human tragedy, but because it’s based on the great man’s autobiography, feels more circumspect than it probably should. Idris Elba is superb as Mandela himself, and Naomi Harris is equally magnificent as Winnie, Mandela’s wife, but a (expected) devotion to protecting Mandela’s stature as one of history’s great individuals means the film never allows breathing room for flaws or nuance. As a bio-pic goes, there’s plenty to dig into, but you get the sense that the best stuff has been cherry picked over stuff that’s probably more controversial. Hefty, solid, yet unremarkable outside of the two lead performances.
Throughout my childhood, three people always stood out to me as icons of their era: Princess Diana, Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela. One, Diana, became an impossible pop-culture touchstone thanks to her untimely death in a Parisian tunnel, while Mother Teresa passed away almost unnoticed barely a week after Diana’s death, obscured (like she was in life, really) by the more vulturous and headline grabbing tragedy most of the Western World was swept up in. The third, Mandela, who was released from a South African prison after spending some 25 years behind bars, became a figure of hope and freedom not only within his home country, but around the world wherever oppression and persecution was felt. His death at the close of 2013 marked the close of a remarkable chapter in our history, and the conclusion of a life that was lived less for his own sake, rather for the sake of millions of others. Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, attempts to document key moments in the life of the great man, whose fight against Apartheid in South Africa made him into one of history’s true giants; is this film of his life worthy of the great man, even if it does star cult hero actor Idris Elba, or should it too be imprisoned for a generation, locked away from public scrutiny?
In war-time South Africa, young attorney Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba) becomes involved in a movement to free black Africans from the oppressive government regime of the time. Apartheid, a form of racism and cultural oppression, was largely ignored by the West until Mandela made it front-page news, thanks to his tireless patriotism. As Mandela becomes more of a symbol of hope for black Africans, he meets Winnie Madikizela (Naomie Harris), and she becomes his second wife. Not long after, Mandela is arrested after a series of ANC-led sabotage efforts against white oppression, leading to his imprisonment (along with several of the ANC’s other leaders). Locked away in a South African prison for almost thirty years, Nelson Mandela learns about the death of his first child, his first wife, and the rising militant aggression by the blacks against Apartheid, leading to the deadly Soweto Uprisings, before newly elected President, FW De Clerk approaches Mandela to try and bring the country back into peace.
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom (or, as I like to call it, Heimdall and Moneypenny Spend Time In Prison) came along at probably the worst – or best – time possible; the London premiere of the film, at which Prince William and Princess Katherine were in attendance, took place at the exact moment Mandela passed away, making for hastily prepared statements delivered to camera once the screening had completed. Mandela’s passing at the time of this film’s release meant the wave of public grief, exultation and remembrance provided the film with a semi-cathartic memorial for the man, a wave of goodwill that probably sat in people’s minds when they watched it.
Long Walk To Freedom covers the majority of Mandela’s life – from his early life married to Evelyn Mase (Terry Pheto), through his meeting with Winnie, his leadership of the African National Congress Youth League, which fought a guerrilla war with the Government at the time by bombing key infrastructure, through to his arrest and incarceration. The film concludes after Mandela is elected President, in 1994. With such a large life to cover, it’s incredible that it’s covered as well as it is in a little over two hours. The film’s script, written by William Nicholson, never feels hurried in its endeavor to examine Mandela’s life, yet it often feels incomplete, as if bits are missing. The focus of the film, primarily the peaceful negotiation of equal rights for the black Africa populace, remains true, but the sidebars and subplots – mainly Mandela’s family issues, marital stresses and political leanings – are given fairly short thrift.
As much as the film delivers a faithfully representative account of South Africa during Mandela’s life, with exceptional attention to period detail as well as presenting the participants with terrific actors, the stumbling block for me is the way the film loses steam dealing with Mandela’s personal life. His first marriage breakdown, which is run through in rather cursory fashion, isn’t handled well, nor is his fractious relationship with Winnie late in the film, where she becomes rather militant towards de Clerk’s government, against Mandela’s protestations for a peaceful resolution. It’s hinted at, and Naomie Harris is great in the role, but the emotional weight of this personality and ideology clash is lost underneath the more famous public war he waged with de Clerk, a tidal wave of human anger and the groundswell of opposition to de Clerk’s Apartheid government gradually, gradually paving the way for democracy. Another aspect I felt was lacking was Mandela’s relationship with his kids, who grow to teenagers without him being around at all, and his fellow inmates, the majority of whom are simply faces in a crowd, making up the number in this horrendous story of persecution.
I realize that the film is Mandela’s alone, and that it’s based on his autobiography, which would lend itself to a fairly one-eyed view of events told within it, but in lessening the focus on the ancillary characters, and keeping Mandela in frame almost entirely, it reduces the balance of patriotism over emotional resonance considerably. It’s an imbalance I thought robbed the film of a lot of passion – or potential passion. That’s not to say Long Walk To Freedom is without punch, because it delivers a number of key moments well – the removal of Winnie from her children for 16 months, spending most of that in solitary confinement, the Soweto Uprising, the Sharpeville Massacre, the constant belittling during incarceration on Robben Island, and the lack of external human contact – with ferocity. Yet the film wavers in its intent late in the piece, dragging through the Mandela/de Clerk negotiations rather slowly, laboring to hone in on Mandela’s approaching release from imprisonment.
The cast, particularly Idris Elba and Naomie Harris, are superb. Elba essays Mandela with a spot-on accent, some occasionally weird-looking makeup, but an always ferocious believability. Harris gives Winnie a fiery, tempestuous heart; Young Winnie is soft and cuddly, yet determined to see South Africa freed, while after her incarceration she becomes a spitfire, inciting hatred and violence in the face of increased opposition by the whites. While most would point the finger of awesome at Elba (and he’s certainly no slouch here), frankly I think Harris out-acts him in her more limited screen time. Both are backed up by a cast that perform admirably, so faulting the film for its performances is not an issue.
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is excellent without being exceptional. It plays thing too safe with Mandela’s personal life, never offering much outside the “official” story and version of events, never giving us a flawed, all-too-human side of the great man – one doubts that what transpires in this film is anything but true, but I suspect a lot of the more negative aspects to Mandela’s personality have been glossed over in favor of a hearty, iconic story that never delves too deeply into the man. The film is eminently worthy of your time, and with Elba and Harris leading a superb cast, you’ll find plenty to appreciate about Mandela’s life – but I’d hoped for something a little rougher, a little more raw than the glossy, warm-toned gusher we get here.