Film Review: Mandela – Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom ends on lyrical note. A swooping aerial shot spins around in a moment of sublime romanticism, capturing the rosy color of the African countryside at sunset. A small figure walks across the hills: it is Idris Elba’s Nelson Mandela, who is pumping his fists in the air with a rousing sense of triumph. In voice over we hear him say: “People learn to hate. They can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart.”

These are undeniably nice sentiments, even if they are largely dubious. In many ways this scene encapsulates both what works and doesn’t work within the film by Justin Chadwick. Long Walk to Freedom is a beautifully made film, but it is also one that deals too heavily in reverence for its subject matter. It attempts to paint on a large canvas, not to mention ruminate on hugely important (not to mention timeless) themes. And yet, despite its best efforts to grapple with the complexities of Mandela’s life, the film often falls back on empty platitudes such as the one quoted above.

While one can understand the impulse to dwell on the inspirational message of Mandela’s story, Chadwick’s gravitation towards that approach is a mistake that thwarts some of his bio pic’s power. Essentially, the story of Mandela should be free from much of the sentimentality which appears here. It needed a more gritty, analytical hand. This is because the bones of the story are so important, not to mention applicable to any number of the violent struggles currently engulfing our fair planet. As Elba states (also at the end) the walk to freedom “is not over yet.” But this film doesn’t add much to the fight.

The most valuable element of the production is Idris Elba, whose Mandela comes across as heroic but also still thankfully human. The film’s take on Mandela’s early years suggests this, with his political spirit evolving slowly and organically. Elba easily channels the man’s intense charisma, not to mention his indomitable fire during early scenes which depict Mandela’s life as a lawyer. And yet the actor also projects the sense that Mandela was not immediately committed to devoting his life to such an arduous cause. He was a person as much as a political activist, and Elba strongly conveys that he had universal desires (such as his family and chasing skirts).

Even more effective are the film’s later scenes where, after having been incarcerated for decades, Mandela starts being consulted by the ruling (and white) South African government regarding how to placate a country being torn apart by racial strife. In these scenes Elba also manages to avoid any unnecessary sanctimony, presenting a powerful figure who is pragmatic and calculating. Again, where some actors may have given into the natural inclination to overact, Elba remains largely subtle and implosive. However, you never really doubt the turbulent inner-life of his version of the man. It’s a performance that in many ways is the film’s saving grace.

Also impressive but perhaps more broadly drawn is Naomie Harris’s turn as the equally complex Winnie Madikizela, another political activist who was Mandela’s wife before and during the nearly three decades he served in prison. In the film Harris is saddled with pulling off a larger than life transformation. Madikizela, after years as a social worker, gradually transformed into a militant anti-apartheid leader. She would end up diverging from her husband politically, and the couple eventually divorced a few years after Mandela’s release.

Harris is marvelously emotive in the part, letting the tears fall and the agonized screams rip. And yet, the actress never become quite as believable as Elba does in his role. Maybe it’s because her transformation feels rushed (as much of it transpires off screen), or maybe it’s because her life before meeting Mandela is ignored by the film. Whatever the case, the character of Madikizela never becomes truly alive during the movie. Despite her admirable efforts, when Harris throws her closed fist in the air one can’t shake off the feeling that it’s just dramatic posturing.

From a directorial standpoint the film possesses a polished efficiency, with the story covering a full fifty years of Mandela’s life with fluid and audacious brevity. That being said, the film is also remarkably impersonal. Chadwick structures his bio pic in a formulaic, chronological fashion, moving from one point to another in a reverent, business-like manner. Certain flourishes that might have brought us closer to the man in question – such as flashbacks of Mandela’s boyhood years in the South African countryside – go nowhere. Chadwick doesn’t flesh out how those memories contributed to the man’s psyche.

If anything, Chadwick shows more skill with the visual image. One shot in particular encapsulates this. After the conversation between Mandela and Winnie (posted above), the loutish guard who is monitoring them shuts the glass window, visually separating them from one another. Chadwick switches to an aerial shot looking down upon the man and the woman, who are aching for one another, and who are separated only by a thin strip of wood and glass. What’s notable here is how long the director lingers on this shot. There is a silent anguish that seems to permeate the frame, a feeling that is enhanced by the score from Alex Heffes, which is otherwise unremarkable.

It’s a devastating moment, and it’s not the only one in the film. One of the story’s major themes is freedom, but not just freedom for those who are oppressed, but also for the oppressors – who live their lives trapped in a self-created prison of fear. The film delves into Mandela’s belief that the only way out of the country’s collective prison was through the spirit of reconciliation. In one scene late in the film, Chadwick establishes this by showing Elba’s Mandela prompting two young boys to stop antagonizing several white guards, and instead to get to know them. In the same shot Winnie is seen walking away from Mandela and the boys, which encapsulates the schism that has come between them.

Of course, sporadic moments do not constitute a great film; and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is by no means a towering achievement. Chadwick’s film is a serviceable adaptation of Mandela’s memoir. However, was this the story about Mandela that needed to be told? One can of course understand the magnetic pull of Mandela’s early revolutionary activity; the searing horror of his incarceration; and the dramatic triumph of his release. One can also certainly sympathize with the dramatic arc that this offered to screenwriter William Nicholson. And yet, one must parse whether or not a film which does little but celebrate Mandela’s iron-like fortitude is the most appropriate use of time and resources.

The final product feels particularly slight due to how, as mentioned above, the message of forgiveness espoused by Mandela, not to mention the development of South Africa after his election, feels like the true story our world needs. Because, unlike what Elba states in voice over in the film’s closing shot, hatred, fear and tribalism also come quite naturally to the human heart. This is a fact that makes Mandela: Long to Freedom disposable, and is what makes the call for more competent biographical filmmaking all the more urgent.

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