Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom arrives in cinemas as its subject’s life and accomplishments are being celebrated in the wake of his recent passing. But is this the towering adaptation we’ve all come to expect from such an eventful and epoch-defining life? My review after the jump.
The film chronicles the life of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (Idris Elba), starting with his early years practicing as a lawyer in Johannesburg, South Africa, in the 1950s. From there, we see his involvement in the African National Congress in an effort to topple the vicious policy of apartheid that oppressed the people of South Africa. As his methods shift from non-violent protest to sabotage, Mandela is arrested and imprisoned at the infamous Robben Island. As his 27 years of imprisonment draw to a close, the shifting political and social climate of South Africa and the entire world offers Mandela a chance to finally realise his dream of equality for his people.
From the start, Long Walk to Freedom had the odds stacked against it. The dramatisation of a life that spanned 95 years and had seen some of the most momentous social change in world history was never going to be easy. In addition, it is the much beloved and controversial figure of Nelson Mandela who is the subject of the film. The film’s valiant attempt to include important events from the entire course of Mandela’s life is both its biggest weakness and its biggest strength. On one hand, the film’s structure allows us to see the younger, more militant Mandela, the man who was once branded as a terrorist by his enemies and who wasn’t above using the combination of explosives and buildings to achieve his ends. These sequences are essential to appreciating his embrace of peace in his later years. Elba manages to imbue Mandela with the requisite gravitas and towering sense of authority that he was said to possess. We also realise that he wasn’t the wholly saint-like figure many claim he was, as we see his rather ill-treatment of his first wife, Evelyn (Terry Pheto).
On the other hand, the film’s attempt to cram so many events into a relatively scant 141 minutes robs us of much of the insight and understanding that a more thorough adaptation might have granted. Most egregious in my opinion is the omission of a thorough exploration of how Mandela’s political beliefs were allowed to mellow and change during his incarceration. At no point are we shown why it was that Mandela decided to seek a peaceful resolution to apartheid, aside from a throwaway line of dialogue near the end of the film. We don’t get to see Mandela taking the time to learn Afrikaans, the language of the white South Africans, as well as Afrikaner history, in an effort to fully understand those he had considered his enemy. It was this communication with his jailers and Afrikaner officials that helped him to earn some of their respect and trust during the first tentative steps taken toward reconciliation. As such, the film feels more like a Mandela ‘cheat-sheet’. It may have been a good idea to film it in two separate parts, the first depicting the early years until his imprisonment while the second could chronicle the prison years and his eventual rise to power as the president of South Africa. Having a different actor for the elderly Mandela could also have allowed us to skirt some of the questionable old-age prosthetics used on Elba. At least the brief (for this sort of film) running time ensures the film never has a chance to feel preachy or overlong.
One of the film’s saving graces is the story of Winnie Mandela (Naomie Harris), the wife of Nelson and her slow path toward hatred and militancy, borne out of the injustices against her and her family. Harris gives a fierce and fiery performance, particularly as the film draws to a close and her approval of torture, such as necklacing, is bravely dramatised. In contrast, these later sequences don’t show Elba at his best, he simply lacks the broad, luminous smile and warm nature that Morgan Freeman pulled off effortlessly as Mandela in Invictus (2009).
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is by no means a bad film; it’s an efficient, well-made adaptation but one that is frustratingly opaque about the man and the internal forces that drove him to change history for the better. Elba and Harris do some excellent work here as Nelson and Winnie Mandela and it is a shame that the movie fell short of being truly great, when nothing but greatness would have done.
By Johnson Hii
Director: Justin Chadwick
Writer(s): William Nicholson (screenplay), Nelson Mandela (autobiography)
Starring: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Terry Pheto
Runtime: 141 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: February 6 2014; Australia: January 30 2014