Film Review: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (M) (USA, 2013)

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013) Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela (Screengrab)

“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin … People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart”

With such beautiful and moving lines, gracefully unaltered from the original source material autobiography, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom should be an easy win. Nelson Manela’s astounding life and powerful messages of freedom and peace are only made more poignant due to his recent passing. However Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom serves as merely a good film, rather than a great one.

Depicting some 80 years of a busy and turbulent life in one film is no easy task, so even at around two and a half hours, the film’s pacing problems are obvious. The first part of Mandela’s life, his first marriage, discovery of the black freedom cause and his imprisonment, feels more like extended montage than true film. This is frustrating for a number reasons, perhaps most pointedly of which is that this is the part of Mandela’s life most of the audience knows the least about, and is so damn fascinating! Fortunately, things do become more fluid once we reach prison.

27 years imprisoned would be a difficult proposition to squeeze into any amount of film, and to his credit, director Justin Chadwick does pull of these scene rather well. But these only serve to highlight other faults. Constant ‘shaky-cam’ camera work and obvious-on-the-nose moments of dialogue pepper the film, and draw the viewer outside of the painful realities of prison life, the horrific violence on the streets, and the growth of Mandela as a person on the inside. Continuing after his release from prison (sorry for the spoiler?), the film loses its most effective end point too.

Not that his final years and election aren’t worth telling, rather that the film’s already saccharine tone buckles under overly sentimental notes. That said, the film isn’t entirely without worth. It would be very difficult to criticise Idris Elba in his portrayal of Mandela; bring fire and passion to the angry rebel for whom freedom was an ideal worth dying for, a realness to the womanizing romantic, and a suitably understated grace to the ageing prisoner and peaceful, ever contemplative man the audience is more familiar with. Naomie Harris too, as Mandela’s partner and comrade Winnie Mandela, brings life and beauty to the screen.

Harris’ depiction only becomes more powerful as the movie goes on, with Winnie becoming an increasingly important and dramatic figure in the South African struggle. The eye-catching twenty-something Nelson first meets is barely recognisable in the battle-scarred and world weary political activist Harris becomes by the film’s final act. The fact that this change seems so natural on screen is great credit to Harris, who we will hopefully be seeing much more of in the future.

For its faults, the film is still worthwhile to a certain degree. Nelson Mandela’s life was so fascinating, and his story and message are so vital to understanding struggle and peace in the 20th and 21st centuries, so an accurate depiction of his life, even a problematic and occasionally lacklustre one, isn’t bad viewing. Perhaps Mandela’s life and legacy are just too grand for filmmakers to truly tackle head on, explaining previous depictions (2009’s Invictus, 2011’s Winnie Mandela) choice to have the focus elsewhere. Cinema often offers us visions greater than life and bigger than reality- the problem is that life doesn’t get much greater or grander than Nelson Mandela’s.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 2 Hours and 27 Minutes
Rated: M

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom opens nationally on Thursday, February 6, 2014