Dir: Justin Chadwick • Wri: William Nicholson • Pro: Anant Singh • DOP: Lol Crawley • ED: Rick Russell • DES: Johnny Breedt • MUS: Alex Heffes • CAST: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Terry Pheto, Robert Hobbs
Nelson Mandela’s death was announced at the end of the London premiere of Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom. I wonder how the film affected the audience’s reaction to the news – perhaps Idris Elba’s performance moved them to shed tears they otherwise wouldn’t have? Did those scenes of vicious terror campaigns and wife-beating complicate anyone’s view of the man? Or did the film bring the great loss home, but for the wrong reasons; because it became clear that a popular culture representation of such a life can never do justice to it?
The film follows Mandela from his childhood – or, rather, we see just enough of Mandela the youth to get a sense of his tribal origins before skipping forward to Mandela the young lawyer. These sections are the film’s high points – the portrait of the young statesman as nonviolent political agitator, as charismatic womaniser and eventually, yes, wife-beater, is uncompromising. Soon he joins the ANC, meets Winnie Madikizela (Naomi Harris), who becomes his second wife, and becomes radicalised by the poverty and discrimination that is rampant in 1950s Johannesburg. Mandela renounces nonviolence and begins a terror campaign, goes on the run and is arrested. He and his allies are sentenced to life and shipped off to Robben Island. From then on, the film’s business is compression and reduction. 20 minutes for those 27 years – the decade after 1990 is positively galloped through, considering that that was when so much that was world-altering took place.
But there are greater sins than mere unevenness. Biographical films often aim for the elegance of an artful written biography by means of a sort of patterning. A theme is introduced within the story, before being reduced to a single visual cue that is repeated when significant-seeming. If you’re writing a biography, when certain past events are pertinent you can just bring them up again. But in film all you have are these few selective moments you’ve chosen to repeat. For example, whenever Mandela faces a challenge, there’s a flashback to a right-of-passage ceremony he took part in as a youth. The point is obvious, but simplistic. Political issues are reduced to internal personal struggles. What I’m getting at: Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom isn’t just unbalanced, it’s unsophisticated. Gandhi was, Lincoln was, Malcolm X was – it’s probably just a characteristic of the genre.
The film does do interesting things with the real-world subject matter. Scenes of government violence, such as the Soweto massacre, are shot with documentary realism, lending them a TV news-style feeling of actuality. The courtroom scene makes effective use of an abridged version of Mandela’s actual 4-hour speech to the judge before his incarceration. And even though Elba doesn’t look much like Mandela, his accent is excellent, far better than, say, Morgan Freeman’s in Invictus. Watts’ Winnie Mandela almost shows Elba up, and the film deals admirably well with her life during Mandela’s years behind bars. But, like many biopics, the Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom feels like a missed opportunity.
Darragh John McCabe
12A (See IFCO for details)
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is released on 3rd January 2014