An attempt to cover fifty years in the life of South African President Nelson Mandela in the time span of two and a half hours seems as exhausting to sit through as it was daunting to piece together, even if it is based on Mandela’s own autobiography. To their credit, Justin Chadwick and screenwriter William Nicholson have made a well-paced film, albeit one that gives us a rudimentary glance at Mandela’s development, doggedly comprehensive without taking any opportunities for depth or subtlety. Its rather conservative depiction of apartheid further places the film into a textbook category and seems an appropriate and elementary learning tool for those ignorant of the subject matter. Despite adhering to the trappings of generalization as seen in many genuinely produced biopics that would have been better served by sticking to one particular moment or period, Chadwick’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom does sport two notable performances, with leads Idris Elba and Naomie Harris sure to walk away with prestigious awards consideration for laying claim to the most definitive cinematic portrayals of the Mandela family, to date.
Cinematographer Lol Crawley has a rather varied resume, with work on notable indie titles like the excellent Ballast (2008) and On the Ice (2011), to more high profile items like the rather middling Hyde Park on Hudson (2012). Here, he paints a golden hued South Africa that fluctuates between looking repetitive and unremarkable (though he’s DP on Russian filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovskiy’s long gestating Dau, which will certainly be a sight to behold). We fly over the locales as quickly as we warp through time, beginning with certain touchstones of Mandela’s childhood growing up as part of the Xhosa, to his beginnings as a lawyer, through his first marriage which partially ended due to his adulterous and womanizing ways. Chadwick and Nicholson try valiantly to remain subjective as they portray unlikeable truths, but the more they play it safe, the more Mandela feels like a glossy package.
Nelson Mandela, like Martin Luther King, Jr., is a man whose life’s work has changed history, a daunting task to reenact with any sort of humble grace. He’s a figure that’s been portrayed by Poitier, Terrance Howard, and Morgan Freeman in an Oscar nominated turn in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, which chose to focus on one major event. And despite being fettered by some distracting old age make-up, Elba’s performance will usurp them all, if not for quality, then for scope. As engrossing as Elba is, the real (and perhaps, only) surprise here is Naomie Harris as Winnie, who steals the latter half of the film. Harris is given more expressive leeway since she’s not the main focus, and thus maneuvers through the film more subtlety.
Granted, Chadwick’s tasked with a tall order, so it seems unfair to censure him, and he’s dealing with volatile subject matter. Certainly, he avoids a semblance of ‘torture porn,’ and keeps the graphic violence to a minimum, but to such an extent that discomfort rather than running time seems to have dictated the content. The warped militant that Winnie Mandela becomes after her relentless experiences surely deserves a better due (and no, the 2011 Jennifer Hudson biopic is not it), as does her husband’s prison transformation which would turn them into ideological opponents, which is explained but not depicted. While Elba is in top form when reenacting Mandela’s exciting oratory power more than anywhere else, his long walk is here relayed with a taken-for-grantededness, confusing sincerity with brevity.
Reviewed on November 10 at the 2013 AFI Film Festival – Special Screenings Programme.