Wednesday, 5 February 2014
FILM REVIEW: MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM
All publicity is good publicity as they say, and while the producers of Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom would take no joy in the death of their film's subject -- anti-apartheid campaigner and first black president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela -- late in 2013, they could be forgiven for delighting in the unintentional yet inevitable focus his passing would bring the film.
Conversely, Mandela's death also brings a greater level of scrutiny to the film, directed by Justin Chadwick and adapted by William Nicholson from Mandela's own autobiography, The Long Walk To Freedom. And the first hurdle, particularly for those who are sticklers for authenticity, is that leading man Idris Elba bears no resemblance to the man he's portraying.
A fine British actor with a commanding physical presence, Elba all but masters the distinct tone and cadence of Mandela's speech but it's his appearance that is at odds with the iconic face -- both young and old -- which we have become accustomed to over the years (even more so in the days following his death).
How you engage with the film may very well depend on your ability to set aside this discrepancy, as Long Walk To Freedom follows Mandela from his early days as a lawyer in 1942, through his 27-year incarceration on Robben Island, his triumphant release in 1990 and his historic election as not only South Africa's first black president but that country's first president elected under fully (one person, one vote) democratic elections.
More successful is Naomie Harris as Mandela's second wife, Winnie; less encumbered by the legacy of her character's real life status as 'the woman behind the man'. Last seen as Moneypenny in 2012's Skyfall, Harris brings a fiery intensity to her portrayal of Winnie who, with her husband incarcerated, is forced to raise their two daughters on her own whilst always under the surveillance and harassment of the police; even spending more than a year in solitary confinement.
The anti-apartheid cause radicalises Winnie to such an extent that it is their differing opinions of how South Africa should move forward which sours Mandela and Winnie's marriage and not the havoc the tyranny of time and distance that 27 years behinds bars would be expected to wreak. Yet the film doesn't demonise Winnie, which may have been tempting given her less than savoury actions both during and following her husband's prison time.
And to the film's credit, it doesn't deify Mandela. He's depicted as a womaniser and a lousy husband to his first wife, and a man prepared to resort to extreme measures in pursuit of a just cause. And in the days and weeks prior to his eventual release from prison, Mandela engages in private negotiations with the government in spite of what had been until then a one-in-all-in with his fellow ANC members and Robben Island inmates.
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is a handsomely mounted but rather pedestrian look at one man's life and struggle, which was so much bigger than one man and perhaps too big to be contained within one film. Well-intentioned, the film lacks the passion of its hero.