Starring: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Terry Pheto
Genre: Drama/ Biography
A chronicle of the life of Nelson Mandela (Elba), from his childhood in a rural South African village and leaving to become a lawyer, through his 27 years in prison and to eventually when he would become democratically elected President of South Africa and finally end apartheid.
Though cinema has dabbled in showing us certain points in Nelson Mandela’s dramatic life such as Invictus and Goodbye Bafana, based on his autobiography of the same name Long Walk To Freedom is the first to cover his whole life. Considering it is such a powerful story that seemed destined for cinema it does surprise it took so long. The book itself is a big one and of course we all know there is a lot to cover and the film’s attempts to cover everything I felt proved in the end to contribute to both the film’s achievements but also its downfall at times. For example, Steven Soderbergh made his Che Guevara biopic two films.
Of course this film itself has been in the pipeline for over a decade with endless rewrites and various actors attached to the leading role. I felt this at times showed as what we see is a biopic by numbers that at times more feels like a Hollywood product than a powerful story made with genuine passion. Of course the film’s release coinciding with Mandela’s death was sheer coincidence, but Screenwriter William Nicholson attempts to cram so much in at times it almost takes away the power of these historical moments. I found there to be an air of complacency as those involved in the making of Long Walk to Freedom know the subject matter is powerful and familiar that they do not have to make too much effort when putting it on screen.
There is a real episodic feel to the narrative as it felt to me that as much as possible is put in and this unfortunately meant that certain genuinely powerful moments felt slightly diluted, as they felt like they were simply part of a checklist and were skated over way too briefly. The first third rushes through so many different moments that we are sometimes not even given enough time to take in what is a dark and often harrowing subject matter. However in what is a handsomely made film throughout, Chadwick’s use of archive footage as well as dramatic recreations of some brutal scenes still pack a real punch and were always going to.
Keeping everything together however is a magnetic performance from Idris Elba. He has had some daft roles in even dafter films recently (Ghost Rider 2, anyone?), but when he wants to be he can be a superb screen presence. Though he does not look especially like Mandela (accent is spot on though), his physicality is perfect as the younger Mandela. Mandela was a boxer and both a tall and well built man in his younger years and Elba captures perfectly the struggles he faces, both external and internal. As we enter the film’s final third, a plethora of makeup at times serves a bit too much of a distraction with Elba’s physicality feeling a little out of place, but this is saved by the final third’s slow in the pace. Making the rushed first two thirds seem more justified (just), this slow in the pace allows the story arc to pose thoughtful questions and show just how difficult these time were for all of the population of South Africa. This more detailed approach makes this part of the film feel all the more engaging and poignant for it.
Throughout most of the narrative, Mandela’s marriage to Winnie (Harris) plays a prominent part and it is their eventual break up and differing political views that pose poignant questions, bringing a more rounded feel to the entire narrative. Harris herself gives a committed turn and captures the revenge fuelled anger perfectly and sympathetically, but again her powerful story also deserves far more coverage.
I am no expert on the exact details of the life of Nelson Mandela, and of course as per the norm with films like this there are those that mention what has been omitted and ‘selective history’. However as a story of the life of one of the most famous figures of the second half of the 20th century, I feel Long Walk to Freedom overall does its story justice. Though perhaps suffering at times from Hollywood gloss and in my view lacking the raw power of Richard Attenborough’s film about Steve Biko, Cry Freedom (if you have not seen it, then I strongly recommend doing so), the great story alone proves enough. Though witnessing Mandela’s early life of course adds context, I feel for a standalone feature film, focussing on one part of Mandela’s life in more detail may prove ultimately more powerful than cramming everything in together.
Though perhaps verging on collapsing under the weight of its own ambition and attempts to include as much as possible, with a magnetic performance from Elba holding it all together Long Walk to Freedom is still an engaging film with undeniable power.