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 Mandelas 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 Mandelas worthy of. Its based on Mandelas autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom and if the big-screen version has a major fault its that it doesnt 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). Hes 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, whos played by Idris Elba in a stunning performance. Elbas 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 wasnt American. Here, he does an incredible job mimicking Mandelas voice and mannerisms, from his earlier more physically imposing days (when Mandela dabbled in boxing) to his later years. He doesnt look all that much like Mandela, but Elbas performance is good enough that hes still utterly convincing in the part.
Naomie Harris (who worked with director Chadwick on THE FIRST GRADER) is particularly good as Mandelas wife Winnie, whose own role in the fight against apartheid has made her a controversial figure. In the years since their separation, Winnies 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 shes 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. Winnies later actions arent 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. Mandelas 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 its that it feels like theres a better film still to be made about the man. For a truly dramatic take on his life and times, it doesnt begin to compare with Mandelas 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.