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Mandela Long Walk to Freedom

D: Justin Chadwick / 141m

Cast: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Zolani Mkiva, Simo Mogwaza, Fana Mokoena, Thapelo Mokoena

Since its publication in 1995, Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom has been one of those books that was always going to be adapted for the big screen; Mandela’s life was just too extraordinary to be ignored.  And now, thanks to producer Anant Singh, overseer of the project since the book’s publication, we now have fifty years of Mandela’s life condensed down into two hours and twenty one minutes.  Is it enough?  Perhaps…

The movie opens in 1942.  Mandela is a lawyer along with Oliver Tambo.  He works within the courts system and in his spare time, boxes.  He marries and has two children.  He is aware of the political injustice prevalent in South Africa, but has yet to become politicised.  When, in 1950, he witnesses a demonstration that advocates boycotting the buses – because the fares have increased unfairly – it triggers something inside him that makes him join the African National Congress.  Now a revolutionary, he supports non-violent means of attacking the system, but when the massacre at Sharpeville occurs in 1960, he realises that violence is a necessary tool against the Afrikaaners.  During this period, he also meets and takes as his second wife Winnie Madikizela (Harris), his first marriage having ended when he became radicalised.  Arrested in 1962 (according to the movie), Mandela is tried and sentenced to life imprisonment.  Along with seven other ANC members he is transported to Robben Island.  During his internment he remains an important figure within the ANC, but while he learns to approach the problem of apartheid by promoting peace, violent demonstrations and clashes with the police continue to occur across South Africa.  When the government comes calling with the promise of his being released if he helps quell the violence – by renouncing it – Mandela is faced with opposition from both Winnie and right-wing factions within the ANC.  He gains his release, begins to put into place his vision for a united South Africa, and this is where the movie ends, with Mandela having become president.

Mandela Long Walk to Freedom - scene

Adapting such a complex book was always going to be a challenge, and in the hands of William Nicholson, the screenplay does its best to cover the key moments in Mandela’s life without seeming like a hagiography.  However, this leads to many events being given a brief amount of screen time, and it becomes difficult on occasion to judge the importance of some of those events – for example, when Mandela and his fellow ANC members arrive at Robben Island, only one of them is given long trousers to wear, the rest, including Mandela, have to wear shorts.  Mandela campaigns to have long trousers for everyone, but his persistence – as well as the script’s – is free from explanation.  Elsewhere, Winnie’s own imprisonment – sixteen months in solitary confinement at one point – is referred to only when she gets out.  And therein lies another problem: the script shies away from making anything too unpalatable for the viewer.  Robben Island was an awful place, with cells that were too small, and living conditions that were designed to sap the will.  And yet, Mandela seems to get on okay there; you could argue that he even flourishes.  Winnie’s change from supportive wife and mother to violence advocating activist is presented in broad brush strokes, and while Harris convinces in an otherwise underwritten role, there’s too little character development for her, or the viewer, to latch onto.  (It doesn’t help that, due to the need to focus on Mandela, Winnie appears only here and there in the narrative, and in the end, she becomes the violent “face” of the ANC, a political boogeyman that Mandela is forced to distance himself from.)

With too many years to cover and too many incidents and events to fit in, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom suffers in the long run, and ends up like a potted history of one man’s turbulent life.  There’s also a semi-reverential tone that stops the movie from being too emotive, even when the characters are suffering or events such as the Sharpeville massacre take centre stage (this tragedy, where children were killed as well as adults, is over in a matter of minutes; there’s no time to fully appreciate the horror of the impending situation nor its aftermath, and not in the way that, say, Richard Attenborough addressed the massacre at Amritsar in Gandhi).  With the movie thus appearing flat and with no appreciable highs and lows, it’s like being told about someone’s life but by someone who can’t quite connect with, or understand, the events they’re relating.

As Mandela, Elba gives a superb, measured performance that, thankfully, makes up for  a lot of the movie’s inefficiencies (good luck to anyone trying to work out who’s who in the ANC and on Robben Island; they may have names in the credits but they’re certainly not identified in the movie).  Elba dominates the movie, nailing the husky cadences of Mandela’s speech, and projecting an authoritative aura in the movie’s later stages when dealing with the government’s representatives and the political liability that Winnie has become.  He is never less than convincing throughout, and it’s a tribute to Elba that he manages to imbue Mandela with a spiritual quality that the script downplays and which might otherwise have been missed.  In support, Harris matches Elba for commitment and avoids demonising Winnie for her beliefs.  It’s a far more subtle performance than it first appears.

Hampered by the script, director Chadwick nevertheless manages to keep the movie interesting and rightly trains the camera on Elba as much as he can.  There’s a fine score courtesy of Alex Heffes, as well as crisp, warm cinematography from Lol Crawley.  With glorious location work, and good performances  all round, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom doesn’t fly as high as you’d hope, but it does offer a fairly straightforward account of Mandela’s life over fifty years and the struggles he – and his country – endured during that period.

Rating: 7/10 – solid if unspectacular production raised up a notch or two by Elba’s excellent performance; worthy, yes, but also dull in places, and lacking in verve.