Chronicling the life of Mandela, played with an intense conviction by Idris Elba, we begin our journey with him as a young, intellectual lawyer, who finds himself completely dismayed and exasperated at the racism that exists in South Africa. After meeting the love of his life – the equally impassioned Winnie (Naomie Harris), he soon starts standing up and fighting for racial equality. However as his reputation and meteoric rise to notoriety grows as a key player in the ANC’s (African National Congress) Defiance Campaign – he is then unfairly imprisoned for life. While South Africa is dealing with the brutal apartheid, as white and black citizens are segregated in their own communities, it takes 27 years in confinement before Mandela is freed to instil hope in this shattered nation, as he is inaugurated as the first democratically elected president of South Africa.
Where this picture falls short, is within the decision to cover so much ground, as it’s not easy to extensively report on fifty or so years. There is so much depth and wealth to this tale, and really in order for this to work, we need to find a strand in Mandela’s life, be it his relationship with Winnie, or his imprisonment, or just his childhood – we need to focus on one particular aspect, and the more intimate idiosyncrasies, not the entire thing. Instead it feels overwhelming, and we don’t have time to reflect on anything, as though we’re mechanically ticking off all of these historical events, disallowing the audience the opportunity to truly immerse themselves in the film, and emotionally invest in this tale. Considering how tragic and appalling some of the events during the apartheid regime were, it’s a shame that this title feels so flat, not nearly as poignant or upsetting as it has the potential to be. This is a powerful, devastating set of affairs, and it all just feels somewhat formulaic and banal.
That said, Elba must be commended for his performance, but question marks still remain over the decision to cast him in the role. Though, much like Mandela, the British actor radiates natural charisma – this does feel more like an impersonation than an embodiment at times. This is particularly the case in the latter stages, when Mandela is freed from prison as an elderly, somewhat fragile man. Though the unconvincing make-up doesn’t help in this regard – Elba’s frame seems too broad, and he seems almost too imposing a figure to quite capture that distinctive vulnerability.
It’s very much a one man show, and the supporting roles are not given nearly enough to work with, particularly for Winnie – as we don’t truly get to see the best of the talented Harris, despite the fascinating elements to her character, who is combating personal issues of her own. Mandela is presented honestly though, and his flaws and indiscretions are there for all to see. He isn’t glorified, we see the adulterer and the man who neglected his kids, making him all the more human as a result. However, and again this points back to the decision to cover so much of his life, we don’t have the chance to dwell on any of these imperfections, and every time he does something untoward, it’s soon replaced with a heroic moment, as we move so swiftly through proceedings.
Regardless of the criticisms and shortcomings within this uninspiring biopic, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom remains an important piece of filmmaking, allowing new generations the opportunity to witness what this man somehow managed to achieve in the face of adversity and sheer brutality. It’s just a shame that the educational purpose of this title is not quite backed up emotionally.