Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a lengthy hike indeed: the film stretches over nearly two-and-a-half hours, chronicling the life of Nelson Mandela from young revolutionary to iconic leader. A half hour in, I was dreading the next couple hours; the first thirty minutes thrusts its way through a checklist of Mandela’s early life – some womanising here, some police brutality there, a burgeoning sense of social responsibility that flowers into revolutionary zeal – all with a perfunctory, awkwardly hasty rhythm. It’s as though director Justin Chadwick didn’t want to leave any detail out of the film, but also wanted to get through things as quickly as possible, and scenes that should resonate fall flat, executed hurriedly and without imagination.
The structural problems of Mandela never truly dissipate. Based closely on Mandela’s autobiography of the same name, that’s not surprising – lives don’t come in neat, three-act packages – but it does seem like a clearer vision might have produced a more focused film. Thankfully, things do improve significantly after that clumsy first half hour.
The turning point comes when Mandela and his African National Congress allies, recently arrested, stood in court awaiting their sentencing. Prepared to die as martyrs for a cause greater than themselves. Martyrdom is inspirational but in an abstract, elusive way; coming from a life of privilege, it’s easy to respect those who would give up their lives for something while difficult to truly relate. When the sentencing judge announces that he will sentence these men to life imprisonment, Chadwick grants us a moment to observe their reaction. They display a palpable sense of relief that’s simultaneously contaminated by the gravity of the situation and exalted by their commitment to their people. Rather than rushing past, we pause and observe, and it’s as powerful as it deserves to be. From this point on, the film seems to slow down, maturing past its awkward adolescence.
At the centre of Mandela stands Idris Elba, given the unenviable task of portraying a man idolized by millions, more icon than individual. He’s at his best as Mandela as a man, flirting in a nightclub or silently reacting to a devastating telegram. Later in the film, increasingly cocooned in old-age makeup, he never achieves that indefinable aura that made Mandela so special. The screenplay is partly to blame here; the early scenes of incarceration are excellent, but there’s a critical character leap from anger to acceptance that gets lost somewhere in a montage. It almost feels like Elba is being asked to play two separate characters without the connection to seal his character arc.
More impressive is Naomie Harris as Mandela’s wife Winnie. She undergoes a transformation from a cheerful young bride to a militant leader in Mandela’s absence, a fierce advocate of violence and retribution. The motivation for this transformation is only suggested – an extended stay in solitary confinement, incessant police harassment – but Harris fully embodies her metamorphosis. Like Elba, she seems to be playing two people, but she creates continuity with a robust, measured performance.
The last section of the film presents Mandela’s rise to the presidency, and some of the structural jitters that spoiled the first half hour resurface. Screenwriter William Nicholson must have felt a sense of obligation to tell as much of Mandela’s story as possible, but two-and-a-half hours is, frankly, not enough. The storytelling is effective – a shiver-inducing burst of Gil Scott-Heron over stock footage – as often as it stumbles into cliché; for example, a massacre seen through the eyes of a tear-striped infant (also: lots of lens flare).
As an accessible way of telling Mandela’s remarkable story, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is undeniably successful. It will be a mainstay of history classrooms for decades to come. But as a film, it’s just okay, its potential squandered by an insistence on cramming in as much detail as possible. Perhaps it might have succeeded as an extended mini-series, or a pared-down film that focused on the diverging paths of Nelson and Winnie (easily the film’s most compelling thread, and one given too little attention). As is, this is a merely good film about an immeasurably great man.