We have mixed feelings over Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and here's why.
If you're a fan of historical drama like us, movies like Lincoln and Elizabeth are must-haves, content to show us pivotal moments instead of epic re-tellings of our titular hero's entire life. Films like those seemed like good ideas growing up, but now they feel too compacted, unable to spread their wings to tell a deeper story. Such is the case with the Nelson Mandela biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, a film that looks and sounds amazing, is filled with excellent performances, but struggles to cram in every important moment behind the history of a complex man.
We first see Mandela as a boy entering manhood during an ancient African ceremony in which he paints his face white then runs with other boys into a lake to wash the color off. This theme of rebirth will be repeated throughout the film, as an older Mandela (Idris Elba) becomes a successful but idealistic lawyer in 1940's South Africa, then joins the ANC, marries fellow freedom fighter Winnie (Naomi Harris), and is unjustly arrested and imprisoned for 27 years before becoming a voice for an entire movement.
Elba inhabits the role in a way few have, from his aging but upright stature to his perfect cadence. Elba is a personal favorite of SJF, and in Mandela he makes the role his own and wins our attention early on. Harris is fabulous as the fiery Winnie, who struggles to balance her wishes for a free South Africa with her husband's return to her life after his release. Her breaking during 16-month prison term alters her life forever, and we empathize with Harris's portrayal and the militant person she becomes. The problem with the film arises here: Harris has time to evolve her character, given just a few events such as the imprisonment, her divorce, and the movement itself to craft the image. For the equally-excellent Elba, he's given too much to do by Director Justin Chadwick and Writer William Nicholson, who based the screenplay on Mandela's 1994 autobiography. Elba is thrown into the turbulent struggles in South Africa without a satisfying reason to do so, becomes a freedom fighter for a brief period before his wild ride through imprisonment and release. It all feels terribly rushed, especially during Act 3 which feels more like a sprint to cram more events into the narrative.
Surprisingly, Nicholson does reveal a darker side of Mandela as both a womanizer and divorcee, ill content with Winnie's growing radicalism and struggling to adjust to life outside of prison. Here again, Chadwick misses the point of Mandela, taking little time to develop the relationship with his children upon his release and the general human element behind the man. Except for one prison scene with his daughter - which we found poignant and beautiful - we never learn how he adjusts to life with children, nor how they are affected by his growing popularity. Sadly, we don't see Winnie much past their divorce, leaving that excellent performance off the table and focusing instead on Mandela's incredible rise to the Presidency in 1994. Nicholson does paint a pretty picture, complete with great panning shots of South Africa, the gritty town life of Johannesburg, and the lavish palace of President DeClerk. Composer Alex Heffes inspires us with some of the best soundtrack music of 2013, weaving both traditional African music and symphonic melodies into a near-perfect mix.
It's hard to emerge from Mandela and not feel a sense of anger towards white South Africans of that time, nor to be moved by the immovable force that was Nelson Mandela. But it's the telling of the whole story, and its need to be so reverential at the same time, that makes us wish Steven Spielberg had slapped Nicholson on the back of the head to remind him of Lincoln's brilliant 'moment in time' narrative. In the end, you're left unsatisfied and clamoring for more about Nelson Mandela, even though Nicholson gives us more than we can handle. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and disturbing images, sexual content and brief strong language. and has a runtime of 139 minutes.
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