Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom

Art & Culture

The release of this new biopic is so close to the great man’s death, it is almost beyond coincidence. The film is long, worthy, but fails to capture the charismatic magic and lightness of touch that made Mandela the man so unforgettable.

 It’s never easy to make a film about someone whose international stature is so overwhelming. Gandhi  was too reverential, and films about Jesus have suffered from the same problem. There are a number of key issues. Do you tackle their whole life? If not, what do you omit? Do you deal with their failings as well as their qualities? Do you let the story tell itself, or do you go for a subjective interpretation? Mandela opts for the whole life option, with a few warts thrown in, and a relatively non-subjective portrayal. This is the Mandela-as-noble-hero version, which is willing acknowledge that he was a bit of a womaniser in his early days.

Most people will have a fair idea of Mandela’s life, after the best selling autobiography. The film follows those familiar contours. We watch him struggle as a radical lawyer, his meeting with Winnie, his conversion to radical politics under extreme pressure, and his inevitable imprisonment. It’s a path we know well, which doesn’t make it any less remarkable. But not only does the narrative lack surprises, it lacks any real fluidity. When you’re telling a story this powerful, it helps to have a nimble touch and that is what director Justin Chadwick lacks.

Instead, he opts for stage-managed set pieces, a riot here, a speech there, the Sharpeville massacre recreated, but not of them have any real life. They’re like cinematic tableaux, arranged for our edification, and lacking that sense of conviction that a film like Battle Of Algiers created, of watching history unfold before our eyes. It may be unfair to say worthy but dull, yet that is how it seemed to me.

Huge praise must go to Idris Elba who makes a magnificent Mandela, especially in his younger more robust days when he was a lion of a man, and Naomi Harris is a superb Winnie. Whether these two performances are enough to sustain a film this long is open to question. But given the stature of the man, this is – in part at least – a noble, if somewhat stately memorial.


Phil Raby

Front Row Films

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