Title: Mandela:Long Walk To Freedom
Director: Justin Chadwick
Major Players: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris
Out of five? 3.5
The start of December saw the death of one of the most significant political figures on the international stage. And, perhaps most extraordinary of all, it happened on the night of the London premiere of the film based on his autobiography. It seems almost ungracious to write anything critical about the movie – but it is, after all, a movie and not the man’s actual life.
The truth is that the life of Nelson Mandela is simply too big to put into one film. Justin Chadwick’s Mandela:Long Walk To Freedom is based on the autobiography of the same name, which the former South African president handed over to the producers with instructions not to contact him again until the film was completed. An act of trust, certainly, but one loaded with responsibility. The film takes us through Mandela’s life journey, from rural village boy to sharp suited township lawyer, from political activist to long-term prisoner, and finally from the first democratically elected President of South Africa to elder statesman in both the world and his own family.
As a journey, it’s full of people, action and moments of history. And it’s no surprise that it took some 17 years for the film to finally appear on the screen, as well as more versions of the script than screenwriter William Nicholson can probably remember. But the end result shows that sometimes a story can be more than a single film can handle – even if, as in this case, it is just short of two and half hours long.
This means it’s an uneven film, with some events relegated to mere footnotes and others given more detail. Characters are treated in the same way, with some not even making it to be the screen, all of which shows that inside this one film are numerous ones waiting to be made, especially those about the lesser known parts of the man’s life. And, given that a number of films about Mandela have already appeared in cinemas and on TV, there must be a better than average chance that at least some of them will happen.
It is, however, a respectful, solid bio-pic, with a straightforward approach. There’s no attempt to do anything dazzling or ground breaking. And at its core is a mighty performance from Idris Elba in the title role, who carries the whole film on his shoulders, showing us the complexity of a man with vision, courage and more than a little political cunning. We also see his less than dignified side, when his first marriage descends into distressing violence. And, while he doesn’t look especially like Mandela – especially in the later stages of the film where the make-up department were rather heavy handed – he captures that distinctive voice perfectly.
Naomie Harris gives a spirited performance as Winnie Mandela and the film leaves us in no doubt that her treatment at the hands of the South African authorities was the root cause of her controversial behaviour. Director Chadwick goes to great pains to contrast her response with that of her husband who, on release from prison, isn’t looking for revenge but reconciliation. It stretches their relationship to breaking point: as Mandela points out, “We both spent too much time alone.”
Given the scale of the film, a director’s cut or extended DVD edition could well be on the cards. It may help provide some of the details that the film couldn’t squeeze in. Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is a sincere film that has turned out to be a tribute to its subject. It may well be the first of many and, by the law of averages, some of them may be better films. But a better Mandela than Idris Elba is harder to imagine.
Mandela:Long Walk To Freedom is released nationwide on Friday, 3 January.