“Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom” had a lot of expectation surrounded it because of its subject. That was before the untimely death of Nelson Mandela and the world started mourning the passing of one of history’s greatest heroes. And yet, despite the opportunity before the filmmakers to try and find the real Mandela, they opt to go down a more sympathetic route and create a rather conventional biopic.
Anyone who is aware of Mandela’s life will know that some parts, particularly in his younger years, are less than desirable. When he first became leader of the ANC, he instigated bombings on public buildings and riots in the streets. He claimed not to be a violent man while carrying a gun. He neglected his first wife and committed adultery. While these events are addressed, they pass by quickly and without question. At no point does anyone go up to him and suggest that his course of action is wrong. It is a missed opportunity that this film didn’t take the time to examine this part of his life a little more, considering his transformation from armed protester to messenger of peace is the most interesting aspect of his life.
When it comes to a central role like this, the only actor you can really think of who can provide the right amount of gravitas is someone like Idris Elba. His tall and strong build makes him stand out from the people around him. When he joins in a boycott of the bus services started by his friend, he literally towers over the rest of the protesters. You fully believe that Elba can enter and have the full attention of the room without even saying a word.
Elba does a superb job charting the different stages of his life. When he’s young, passionate and womanising, he comes across smooth and oozing confidence. When starts leading the ANC down a more violent route, you can see the pain that he’s feeling. Every bomb plays on his conscience, but he knows it’s the only way he and his people can get attention. When he’s in prison, he becomes a mournful man who struggles to deal with the fact that the lives of his loved ones are continuing while he has to spend the rest of his life on pause. He rallies his friends together to try and get their prison guards to respect them. Even when facing life imprisonment he continues to fight. Then finally, we see the elderly statesman trying to bring the violence to an end so then all South Africans can live in peace. Because of his screen presence, Elba looks somewhat presidential all the way throughout.
Because of Elba being so enigmatic as the leading man, it’s easy to forget about the wonderful performance put in by Naomie Harris as Winnie Mandela. When we first meet her, she is a gentle and supporting woman trying to help her boyfriend and then husband in any way she can. When Mandela is sent to prison, Winnie realises that the fight for freedom must go on and she takes over the reigns as his successor. Throughout Mandela’s time in prison, she continues to fight, using violence whenever it is necessary. When Mandela is released and wants to negotiate some form of peace, it’s understandable that Winnie disagrees with him. She’s been fighting with her bare hands for years only for her more highly regarded husband to tell her his initial plan of action was wrong.
Winnie can’t quite understand where this sudden change of philosophy has come from, and the problem is neither can the audience. The film aches with the pain of trying to make Mandela’s transformation seem natural while still ticking off the milestones, but it isn’t able to do that. It is genuinely hard to grasp his transition when he becomes an instigator of peace.
The final scene however is very affecting. The sense of achievement during this moment is a little overwhelming. There’s no denying that Mandela lived an amazing life that should be celebrated, and that is why this film aims to do nothing more than pay homage to the man in good faith. You can’t shake the feeling though that someone like Mandela deserves a little more examination. It was a long walk to freedom for Madiba. Unfortunately in this case, the walk may be too long.
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