Review: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom


Idris Elba and Naomie Harris in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

"There is no time, only now." -- Winnie Mandela, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is an imperfect biopic about an imperfect hero. Idris Elba (Pacific Rim, HBO's The Wire) plays South African activist and revolutionary Nelson Mandela. The movie is based on Mandela's autobiography of the same title, published in 1995, so it only covers his life to that point -- which is still quite a fantastic spread.

The story starts with montages (this movie is quite heavy on the use of montages) of the statesman's rural childhood, then kicks into gear in 1942 Johannesburg where Mandela, as a young lawyer, becomes involved in the newly-formed African National Congress.  He marries, separates after infidelities and a harsh altercation with his wife, then meets and falls for Winnie (Naomie Harris, Skyfall). After some years of work with the ANC and leading the group in a more aggressive direction against the apartheid authority of his country, Mandela is imprisoned for 28 years. The film tries to stress Mandela's humanity, frailties and all, over the almost mythical figure celebrated in his later years. 

British actor Elba speaks with a sort of closed-teeth diction to emulate Mandela's speech pattern in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. While his strange pronunciation can be slightly distracting, he plays Mandela as dashing, determined and convinced of his right cause. Surprisingly though, it's Harris who impresses the most here. Her Winnie is fierce and beautiful, discovering her grit and her own skill for leadership as her husband is held for decades on Robben Island.  Harris shows immense talent and range in her supporting role.

It's too bad the chronological narrative skims quickly over the names of other figures and important moments. The relationship between Winnie and Nelson is treated with adequate depth, but other historical events play as mere blips in time. Certainly Mandela was imprisoned during the school protests in Soweto, but having the uprising shown only in a musical montage lessens the dreadful importance of that violent occurance. Why include it at all if it can't be treated with the dramatic weight it deserves? It makes one wonder what another director besides Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) might have been able to bring to the film.

Still, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom supposedly had the great man's approval.  Even Madiba's former wife Winnie likes the film. It's disappointing that this biopic, which yearns to be an epic, falls short. But as far as Mandela's story being told in a feature film, this is fine for now.