If you ask anyone on the planet who they would consider as one of the most important, beloved and influential figures of our time: I bet you any money one of the first names to be mentioned would be former South African President Nelson Mandela. Even though he sadly passed away a few months ago, his legend will always live on from the work he did end the Apartied in South Africa. He lived a truly extraordinary life and it’s no surprise that he has been the subject of many films, documentaries and T.V. films over the years. The latest one to reach our screens is the film MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM. So does this film successful do justice to Mandela’s life story? Read on and find out!
Based on his best selling memoir, the film follows Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba) through the many events of his life: his childhood in a small South African village, his work as a lawyer, becoming a member of the ANC (African National Congress) so that he help fight against the injustice of his people by the Apartheid, meeting and falling in love with his 2nd wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (Naomi Harris), his trail and conviction, his 27 year prison sentence, his release and then to his triumphant victory to becoming the first democratically elected South African president.
As you can tell from reading the synopsis, this is a film that wants to be more ambitious than the usual biopic. While I give the film credit for being ambitious for that, but unfortunately I did feel that it worked against it at times. Instead of being a truly great one, its just a solid if rather standard and formulaic biopic. While a lot of recent biopics have focused on one major event in that person’s life, director Justin Chadwick and screenwriter William Nicholson decided to take the traditional approach and cover every aspect of Mandela’s life. There’s enough material here for either two films or even a mini-series. But since it only has a running time of 2.5 hours, it just feels overstuffed (especially in the first hour which I felt was really rushed and poorly structured). There were a lot of interesting things that happened during that first act, but the film just skims right through them (the relationship between Mandela and his first wife is one that gets the short end of the stick). Also there is a major historical event that happens that’s suppose to be a turning point for Mandela but it gets incredibly short changed that lacks any emotional power that it should’ve had. Luckily once we get pass that and move on to the second/third acts (which involves both Mandela’s time in prison and his release), that’s where the film finds its footing again and actually becomes quite engaging. Although, I must admit that the make-up design they used for the older Mandela looked really weird and off-putting. However while the film may be really flawed, but one of the things I can’t fault it for are the performances from its two leads.
Idris Elba gave a really good performance as “Mandela”. You can can tell that poured his heart into the role and he was able to capture both essence and gravitas of the man extremely well. But surprisingly the performance that really impressed me the most was in fact Naomi Harris, who was absolutely terrific as “Winnie”. I honestly thought at first that she was going to under-utilised but thankfully the filmmakers gave her lot to do with her role by giving her a very interesting subplot (how she was treated by the government after Mandela’s arrest), which I found to quite well done and compelling. Both Elba and Harris have great chemistry together and have some really great scenes with each other. To be honest if it wasn’t for them, I don’t think the film would decent as it was. Also while his directions wasn’t amazing by any means, I thought that Justin Chadwick still did a pretty solid nonetheless. Plus the production/costume design was great (they captured the look at that time extremely well), the score by Alex Heffes was nicely done and cinematography by Lol Crawley was terrific (it was an extremely well shot film).
Overall while MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM wasn’t as great as it could have been and its far from being the definitive take on Mandela’s life, but still I found it to be a solid and reasonably engaging biopic nonetheless despite its flaws. I would say that it is worth a look but don’t go in expecting anything great though. But for what it is, it’s pretty decent.
– Bede Jermyn