Apartheid is a dirty subject that most people want to forget ever happened, much less believed actually existed. And while the genocide and horrors of World War II have been covered in films for decades, apartheid is a subject very few films have tackled (Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom being one of the few to address the subject head-on). Even fewer films have been made about Nelson Mandela, the revolutionary who fought against the despicable piece of legislation. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, based on his own book, aims to change that.
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, as the film’s credits suggest, tells the story of the titular character (Idris Elba), a black lawyer in South Africa who becomes a political activist during the age of apartheid. The film follows him through his 27 years in prison, before his eventual rise to power as the first black President of South Africa.
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is a good film, but it is heavily misguided. From the on-set, it wants to tell the life story of Mandela, but only cherry picks what it deems necessary to get from his being a lawyer to becoming President. We only get fragments and ideas of what happened during this time, never a whole concrete story.
Writer William Nicholson (who recently helped co-write Les Misérables) and director Justin Chadwick seem less concerned with the smaller idiosyncrasies as much as they are pumping in as much as they possibly can into the film. To their credit, the film manages to somehow be well paced and never boring despite its 152-minute running time. But it comes at the expense of never stopping to give any form of introspection or thought to what is happening and being discussed on-screen. Any horrific atrocities that take place are softly shown and referenced (including Mandela’s own indescretions), but then immediately glossed over in favour of the next element they want to throw into the mix.
This problem is inherently what is wrong with the biopic as a film, but most movies of this genre tend to focus on what they can while making the less important moments into montages or mere passing references (Steven Spielberg bucked the trend with Lincoln, telling a whole story about one key moment in the titular character’s life). I admire what Nicholson and Chadwick wanted to do here, and appreciate that it tries hard not to be a run-of-the-mill biography for such an important cultural figure – especially due to the timing of the film’s release and the real life Mandela’s deteriorating health. But the film needs those moments to stop and really pay reverence to what is happening to actually make an impact. Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom has the chance to really address the subject of apartheid, and feel like a breath of fresh air in doing so. But it fails to really make any form of impact by the time the film ends. I would not go so far as to call the film a disappointment for this reason, but it shows more than a few areas where it could easily be improved on.
While the film itself has issues, you would never know it as you watch Elba give his most powerful performance to date as Mandela, transforming into the cultural icon before our very eyes. He embodies and fully becomes the political figure, right down to the look, mannerisms and accent. He is so close to the real thing that it is downright scary to think we are watching someone act, instead of a documentary. While the makeup effects used to age the character are not always as top notch as they need to be (especially at first), Elba’s performance easily outshines them. He remains strong and never wavers throughout the film; he only gets better as the film goes on. The character is inherently emotional, and the way Elba conveys how he is feeling is downright devastating. The great pain and sorrow he shows would make even Mandela himself proud. If not for Chiwetel Ejiofor’s masterful and transcendent performance in 12 Years a Slave, I would say Elba was the front-runner for Best Actor.
Naomie Harris does an equally great job as Winnie Mandela, Mandela’s second wife. Harris’ character changes the most over the course of the film, changing her political stance and motivations as she ages and begins to stand on her own while Mandela is in prison. She is terrific in all of her scenes, blending a mixture of emotions and feelings that practically sear into the screen. Watching her actions and reactions is downright heartbreaking, but Harris never makes you feel sorry for what is happening to and because of her. She is a fighter, and becomes a powerful force to be reckoned with by the time the film comes to a close. Her chemistry with Elba is excellent, but watching her act on her own is even better. Elba’s performance is brilliant, but Harris makes you remember her work just as much, if not even more so.
While Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is heavily flawed, it does an admirable job telling the story of the legendary political revolutionary. We need more films addressing apartheid instead of mere references, and I can only hope this film leads to a definitive one about the subject. As it is though, the story problems are easily overshadowed by an excellent performance from Harris and an absolutely brilliant one from Elba as Mandela. It is not an easy film to watch, but you will be happy you did. I just wish the rest of it matched the magic of the two lead performances.