Movie: Mandela Long Walk to Freedom
Director: Justin Chadwick
Screenwriter: William Nicholson
Starring: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Jamie Bartlett, Terry Pheto
Running time: 139 minutes
A film that tells a remarkable story is not necessarily the same thing as a remarkable film, and Justin Chadwick’s solidly crafted chronicle of Nelson Mandela’s life falls very respectably into the former category.
Watching the extraordinary facts of Nelson Mandela’s life played out on screen will always be fascinating, and the conventional approach taken here is understandable if ultimately disappointing – you can sense at every turn the filmmakers’ reluctance to risk overshadowing their subject.
Despite being adapted from Mandela’s autobiography, which gives the film its subtitle, William Nicholson’s screenplay is almost entirely devoid of psychological introspection, leaving Idris Elba to give a charismatic and physically nuanced performance that still feels emotionally undernourished.
Mandela’s lesser-known early life as an ambitious young lawyer in Johannesburg offers up some of the film’s most compelling notes – the portrayal initially seems promisingly grey, as the young Mandela is shown as both a womaniser and an abusive husband to first wife Evelyn (Terry Pheto). But these early years are dispensed with too swiftly, with an increasingly disillusioned Mandela spouting clunky moralistic soundbites (“This is not law!”) as he rises to prominence within the revolutionary African National Congress.
What Chadwick deals well with is the big picture, the broad strokes, and the notable historical turning points – including the Sharpeville Massacre which drives Mandela and his fellow dissidents to escalate from peaceful protesting to violence – are drawn in vivid, wrenching detail.
Idris Elba, Naomie Harris in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
“Elba is magnetic throughout, giving a consistently detailed performance that subtly reflects the personal toll Mandela’s long walk has taken on him.”
The introduction of Naomie Harris as Mandela’s spirited second wife Winnie provides a crucial injection of warmth and humanity in what otherwise becomes a by-rote portrayal of the facts, as Mandela is finally arrested and jailed for 27 years.
We still understand next to nothing about him as a character by this stage, but Elba and Harris together spark up something that feels more textured, and the growing gulf between them as their ideologies shift through the years is poignantly drawn.
Elba is magnetic throughout, giving a consistently detailed performance that subtly reflects the personal toll Mandela’s long walk has taken on him. Nonetheless, he remains an unknowable character, held reverentially at arm’s length by Nicholls’s script despite the intermittent willingness to depict his flaws.
It’s often said that the most successful biopics are those that cover a selective portion of a life rather than attempting a cradle-to-grave chronicle, and here the sheer weight of the years is palpable. Long Walk to Freedom is a valuable document of a remarkable life, and at times charmingly old-fashioned in its plain-speaking simplicity. But like a tourist racing blindly around a beautiful city landmark by landmark, it too often misses the human detail of its story in its desperation to cover all the bases.