Nelson Mandela was a one truly legendary man. This is someone who sacrificed so much just to give South Africans the basic rights that they deserved. Mandela was a man who was determined, and would just never stop until the job was done. Mandela has always been a person of interest for me, through reading through his autobiography and other books about him like Invictus. His great charm and affable personality made him someone that people could just connect to, and his recent death at the age of 95 is quite a sad one.
Coming a few weeks after his death is a biopic about the man, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Making a film about the man’s life is quite a daunting task, considering the large girth of events that happened in it. Not only that, but it seems increasingly harder to make a biopic on anyone, as Jobs and On the Road earlier this year struggled mighty with this task. While Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is far from perfect, it’s a solid enough effort in honoring this great man.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom follows the journey of Nelson Mandela, and his fight to get equal rights for all South Africans during the apartheid.
Idris Elba, when he was first announced to play this part, was an odd choice to me. Sure, Elba has proven to be a great actor in several roles, but is very much a large guy, who has a potentially intimidating look to him. Due to the fact Mandela is mainly known as a smaller, gentler fellow, this really seemed like an odd mix-match that would doom the film from jump street.
To my surprise, Elba is not only good in the film, but perhaps gives his best performance yet in it. Elba disappears into this larger than life role, with his natural sounding South African accent and easy-going charm. Elba also is able to show some of Mandela’s less desirable qualities, such as his problem of maintaining his relationships. Showing both sides made Elba’s Mandela a very human character, and for that, Elba should be in talks for awards consideration.
Supporting him are a few other relatively underrated actors. Naomie Harris gives a surprisingly insightful performance as Winnie Mandela. At first, it seemed like a largely thankless role, a character that basically would just play second-fiddle to Elba’s Mandela. As the film progresses though, Harris’ really does an impressive job showing the evolution of this character as she takes charge. This evolution is really done quite skillfully and subtley by Harris, who should be getting more buzz for her role. Other actors such as Tony Kgoroge and Ruaad Moosa also do respectably with what they have to work with.
Another aspect heading into the film that got me nervous was the fact Justin Chadwick directed it. Taking hold of such a big film after your only big directing experience being the mediocre melodrama The Other Boleyn Girl and TV episodes seemed like quite a daunting task for Chadwick. Well, it seems like Chadwick was up for the task, because he gives his best directorial effort yet.
Unlike his previous efforts, Chadwick does a great job of making this film his own, by taking the bull by the horns in the director’s chair. Chadwick presents a few really well-executed stylistic touches, especially in the action scenes, presenting them in a freezed and chaotic way, perfectly capturing the spirit of those moments. Chadwick also does a great job of steering the movie along, keeping the film flowing from event to event with a smooth pace throughout its two and a half hour running time.
Perhaps Chadwick’s greatest achievement with the film as a director comes with its emotional scenes. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’s greatest moments come in its quieter scenes, which are jam-packed with this raw and powerful emotional resonance, and don’t shy away from potentially darker moments. As the audience, you feel Mandela’s struggles, you feel the Africans struggle with freedom, and this is executed in a very natural, non-sentimental way.
A great deal of the film’s issues involve its screenplay. William Nicholson has proven he is an accomplished scribe, writing some great films like Gladiator, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and Les Mis. Nicholoson’s screenplay is based off of Mandela’s autobiography, which is based off Mandela’s whole life. Taking on that task, it seems like Nicholson bit off more than he could chew.
The problem is, Mandela had such a long life, full of so much triumph and heartbreak, that adapting that into two and a half hours is an impossible task. Nicholson as a scribe really lacked focus from this perspective, as concentrating the narrative to one certain point in time would have been much better for the film and character.
As the film is, Long Walk to Freedom takes strolls through most of the noteworthy points of his life. When you try to aim for so much, it really does not work very well, as a lot of the film’s segments lacked major details that made these events so grand. Instead of being one extravagant painting, Long Walk to Freedom feels like three half filled out canvases, that are now meshed into this one film.
Something it seems like almost all biopics are struggling with as of recent is avoiding the trappings of a biopic, and Long Walk to Freedom has trouble avoiding some of those cliches. When the film hits some of these generic moments, it kind of takes the audience out of the moment, making them think of the countless times these cliches have been seen and done before.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom could have been two things. One, a tale about Mandela at a point in his life, like his period running the violent ANC or a mini-series showing each chapter of his life with plenty of detail. It’s a shame they went with the middle road, because it turned a potentially great piece of film into something much more rough and flawed.
Even with some gaping flaws in its script, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is an engrossing and passionate film, featuring some of the year’s best performances. If you feel the need to pay tribute to the great Nelson Mandela, this would be a good way to do such.
Take a Drink: for each shake of the camera
Take a Drink: each time they do their rally cry. Amandla!
Do a Shot: for the fight to get trousers
Do a Shot: when U2’s song pops up