The recent death of Nelson Mandela could bring many eyeballs to watch Justin Chadwick’s nearly two-and-a-half-hour kitchen-sink biopic about the anti-apartheid activist and former South African president. On the other hand, with so many vivid eulogies and intricate documentary accounts in the news media, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom looks flat in comparison. Idris Elba’s fiery portrayal of Madiba is probably the best interpretation of the historical figure thus far on film, but he can only do so much to enliven a biopic that is soft around the edges.
Based on his 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom focuses on three major periods of Mandela’s life. First, it shows Mandela as a trusted attorney and representative for black servants who their haughty white owners believe to be thieves and liars. Upset with the lack of rights for black South Africans, he leaves to join the African National Congress. Madiba asks why any subservient black South Africa should follow the laws of a colonial power if they could not vote for changing the order at the top.
Due to increasing activism, he is away from his family so much that he quickly descends into a flurry of love affairs. His wife, Evelyn (Terry Pheto), leaves him and takes the children. Mandela quickly rebounds, with the luminous Winnie Madikizela (Naomie Harris). With barbaric white-on-black killings, as police fire on demonstrating Africans who refuse to carry restrictive passes, Winnie joins her husband in his activism.
The early scenes of Mandela’s activism and adultery are intriguing looks at the figure, showing him as both a vibrant revolutionary and flawed family man. However, these moments are rushed through, capturing a few demonstrations and moments of triumph before sending our hero off to his 27-year imprisonment on Robben Island.
The prison scenes take up the middle hour of the film – and when Mandela is forced to submit and is taken away from plotting against the government, Long Walk to Freedom turns plodding. Screenwriter William Nicholson (Gladiator) finds Mandela more fascinating as one learning how to resist domination by fending off a temperamental warden. Mandela’s resolute spirit to find peace and compromise with his transgressors was one of his key triumphs as a leader upon his release from prison. However, Nicholson does not offer a convincing depiction of the South African’s struggle between choosing to fight or submit.
His triumphs in the prison are small, like getting long trousers for all of the inmates. However, that spirit of resilience that Mandela evokes – the one that prides itself to be the pivotal point of crisis in the protagonist’s life, that long walk to freedom the title refers to – is slighted during this section. The significance of this struggle and sacrifice is, sadly, reduced.
That third section of Mandela’s life the film looks at, although briefly, is his release from Robben Island and his subsequent rise to president of South Africa. (His leadership was already a topic of Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, a film even more dry and simplistic than Chadwick’s biopic.) One of the major incidents that come forth in the final act is Mandela’s separation from Winnie, which is skimmed over.
As Winnie, Naomie Harris is tough, especially when confronted with her own prison sentence during her husband’s stay on Robben Island. However, since Harris and Elba share such few scenes together, it is hard for Chadwick to capture the essence of what made their union so enduring. During Mandela’s prison years, Winnie becomes an image that he flashes to during times of loneliness. However, the lack of quality moments between the couple undercuts the poignancy of those cries for his wife.
The best (and only worthwhile) part of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is Idris Elba. The British actor nails the clipped rhythm of the man’s speech, while the power of Mandela’s statements register in Elba’s commanding voice. Although the actor is more youthful (he is only 41, yet plays Mandela through his seventies), the vigor and charisma that strengthened a nation comes through.
As a result, Elba is a more vigilant Mandela, his captivating voice and power moving an audience more than other reverent portrayals of the man. Actors like Morgan Freeman and Sidney Poitier have played him during the leader’s more senior years of leadership, and their gravitas only does so much to sell Mandela’s power. In comparison, Elba has the growl and conviction of a fighter that makes the film’s subject a pulsating figure, a beating heart with a clenched fist. It does not matter that the old-age make-up supposed to wizen Elba is unconvincing, since the energy he exudes as an actor shows off the power of a much younger man, anyway.
Charismatic and commanding, Elba gives a towering performance; however, it is in a lackluster biopic that is more a history lesson than a gripping character study. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom tries to encapsulate as much as it can about the late South African politician and ex-revolutionary, but its aim to cover a broad scope limits our exposure to the true Mandela. Too often, the wise leader’s battles with the government and his struggle to find peace with the powers who repressed him reveals too little about a figure that is bound to fascinate viewers after his death. Unfortunately, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is more about Mandela’s history than the actual man.
Despite Idris Elba's commanding performance, Justin Chadwick's plodding biopic is more of a history lesson than a gripping character study.