Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/31/13 21:28:54

"Covers the basics of the Nelson Mandela story pretty well."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

"Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" is a tidily-arranged biography; it organizes what people are interested in where Nelson Mandela is concerned and presents it in a manner that is respectful and stirring without feeling like it is getting bogged down in details or distorting through too many omissions. There may be better Mandela movies to be made, ones that do more to challenge one's assumptions or delve into the how of specific things being accomplished, but this feels like a solid primer.

After a brief scene presumably from Mandela's childhood in a rural village, the film picks up in 1940, where the young Mandela (Idris Elba) is a lawyer in Johannesburg, offending whites with his directness in the courtroom and impressing blacks with his charm and way with words. Though he is initially a reluctant activist, he eventually becomes active in the African National Congress. It hastens the end of his first marriage to Evelyn Mase (Terry Pheto), but later draws beautiful social worker Winnie Madikizela (Naomie Harris) to him. In the early 1960s, he and several ANC comrades are arrested and sentenced to life in prison.

As Nelson's decades-long incarceration arguably sharpens him into a shrewder politician, events on the outside make Winnie a more strident radical. Indeed, one might argue that Naomie Harris plays the more fascinating Mandela; Winnie is not the saint but the wife who cannot live up to his reputation, and her raw emotion and hostility can frequently be just as compelling as anything her husband does, all the more so because just as it is easy to understand where she is coming from, the audience can also see clearly - both via history and the way she and Nelson interact toward the end of the movie - that this is not what the country needs in the struggle's final stages. Harris handles every phase of Winnie's life very well; there's no point between the idealistic girl of the start and the hardened woman of the end where the audience doesn't feel this is the same person undergoing a real, complex evolution.

Winnie Mandela doesn't ever quite overshadow Nelson Mandela in his own film, though, and in many ways the film is designed so that no-one ever threatens to: Idris Elba always seems like the tallest, most powerful person in any given scene, and while there are many scenes when his charm and quick wit are on display, they often give the impression of a joke spray-painted on a brick wall; even the moments when Mandela is meant to come across as human and vulnerable highlight his resolve. It's a credit to Elba that he's never boring or one-note in the role; even as Mandela becomes the elderly, forgiving icon who recently passed away, Elba lets us see that he's also still a man with personal ambition underneath.

Long Walk to Freedom is based upon Mandela's autobiography, and as such was authorized by the subject, and while it doesn't present Mandela as perfect, one does sort of notice that certain details are, perhaps, a bit glossed over: I don't believe any form of the word "communist" is ever uttered, for instance, and not only is Mandela's rise to a leadership position within the ANC left somewhat vague, so is the decision to countenance violence. It's explained after the fact, in famous words that sound plenty reasonable, so it's not as if the film runs from elements that may make him look bad, but it's undeniable that this is Nelson Mandela's story told from his point of view, and that should always be kept in mind.

Given that circumstance, director Justin Chadwick and screenwriter William Nicholson do a good job of getting the story on screen in a fairly selfless manner. There aren't many storytelling devices used that would clearly come from them and not Mandela, nor is there an over-reliance on narration. The film covers over fifty years of a man's life, and Chadwick allows the audience to feel the scope of that without feeling like it's playing out in real time. Some better-than-average aging make-up jobs help, and the rest of the production values are right in line.

It should go without saying that one isn't going to learn everything there is to know about Nelson Mandela, or necessarily even anything new, especially given that summaries of the man's life have not been in short supply recently. But it's a story worth telling, and this version does a fair enough job to be worth an audience's time.

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