Review: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
PLOT:The life and times of Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba)- from his early years as a lawyer in South Africa, to his involvement with the ANC (African National Congress) through his twenty-seven years in prison, to his eventual release and election as the first black president of South Africa.
REVIEW:MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM is certainly a well-timed film. Tragically, the London debut of the long-gestating biopic coincided exactly with Nelson Mandela’s death- after a long illness- at the ripe old age of ninety-five. Truly, Mandela is one of the giants of our time, with his struggle against the racist apartheid government of South Africa being an inspiration to us all.
Director Justin Chadwick (THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL) has churned out a perfectly serviceable tribute to the great man, even if it falls short of being the revelatory biopic Mandela’s worthy of. It’s based on Mandela’s autobiography, ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ and if the big-screen version has a major fault it’s that it doesn’t quite capture the urgency or poignancy of the book. The script by William Nicholson tries to paint a refreshingly three-dimensional portrait of the leader, with it already garnering some controversy over the fact that Mandela in his youth is portrayed as something of a womanizer, cheating on his first wife (which he denies in his book). He’s also seen as initially reluctant to join the ANC, with him enjoying success as a lawyer even if he has to constantly deal with racist taunts and condescension from the ruling Afrikaner minority.
While I have no idea whether or not this is factually accurate, it does help humanize Mandela, who’s played by Idris Elba in a stunning performance. Elba’s always been particularly gifted with accents. I remember being shocked upon hearing Elba speak in his normal English accent on LUTHER as he was so convincing as Stringer Bell on THE WIRE that no one would have ever thought he wasn’t American. Here, he does an incredible job mimicking Mandela’s voice and mannerisms, from his earlier more physically imposing days (when Mandela dabbled in boxing) to his later years. He doesn’t look all that much like Mandela, but Elba’s performance is good enough that he’s still utterly convincing in the part.
Naomie Harris (who worked with director Chadwick on THE FIRST GRADER) is particularly good as Mandela’s wife Winnie, whose own role in the fight against apartheid has made her a controversial figure. In the years since their separation, Winnie’s been demonized by some, and celebrated by others, and LONG WALK TO FREEDOM tries to portray her in as balanced a way as they can. While she’s certainly depicted as someone more consumed by hatred than her husband, Harris’ performance never allows her to be portrayed in a simplistic fashion. Harris’ does a good job conveying the shift from idealistic youth to a woman constantly harassed and beaten by the ruling Afrikaners while not even being able to see her husband for years at a time. Winnie’s later actions aren’t necessarily excused, but Harris’ performance helps you understand her perspective.
Yet, while there are a lot of laudatory things about LONG WALK TO FREEDOM, outside the performances it still feels a bit flat. Mandela’s story is amazing, but this feels more like a condensed miniseries than a full-fledged feature, and there have been better movies made about apartheid (CRY FREEDOM, CATCH A FIRE, etc). MANDELA has one real failing it’s that it feels like there’s a better film still to be made about the man. For a truly dramatic take on his life and times, it doesn’t begin to compare with Mandela’s own book. Still, this is a noble attempt, and certainly a better treatment than the recent WINNIE. For Elba and Harris’ performances alone, this is still a must-see.