Adapted by sreeenwriter William Nicholson, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a solid biopic based on the autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba). After a brief montage of his life as a child and a glimpse at his role as an attorney in Johannesburg, the film focuses primarily on the events that led to his involvement with the ANC as a leading voice in the fight against apartheid (without getting too specific about his exact role when the organization moved away from nonviolent resistance) and his eventual imprisonment of 27 years for his crimes.
The highlight of the film is the performances, particularly Elba taking on such a daunting role and Naomie Harris as Mandela’s wife Winnie who we see faced several of her own hardships. During the early part of Mandela’s imprisonment the film’s focus momentarily shifts to Winnie’s various battles against the government including her own incarceration. The film introduces the idea of how Nelson and Winnie both react differently to their situations but, as with other aspects of the story, the theme is presented but never fully developed.
In dealing with decades of the man’s life in 139 minutes director Justin Chadwick choose a This is Your Life-style look-back that offers audiences a look at Mandela at various important points in his life. Although the old-age make-up is actually pretty good in Mandela’s later years the film does struggle a bit slowly aging the activist during his long prison stay which (considering it’s where he spent nearly a third of his life) isn’t given the attention I expected. His time after his release, and his struggles to put together his life and family after so many years away, is also underdeveloped.
Shot in South Africa and adapted from Mandela’s own autobiography the film is deferential to Mandela and his legacy, even to a fault. The film succeeds when allowing the actors to live in the film’s more emotional moments, the sequence of Mandela in prison being reintroduced to a daughter he hadn’t seen in a decade is likely to bring a tear to your eye, but rather than a straightforward matter-of-fact historical lesson the film could have been helped by less clear-cut aspects of his life and more of the messier and complicated pieces (which, once again, is teased several times).
I would still recommend Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom despite the limitations of the style of its storytelling for the performances of Elba and Harris, two actors whom I have great respect for and who put in performances that turn out to be much better than the movie they are starring in. Elba is terrific in every scene giving the character the gravitas needed to sell the hero’s journey, and Harris is a marvelous choice as the far fiery Mrs. Mandela whose own story may have made for a more compelling movie.
Even though its apparent goal to teach about Mandela’s greatness the film doesn’t really offer much insight into the man’s inner thoughts, internal battles with himself and the violent actions he took part in, or just how much his lengthy stay in prison changed him. As an introduction to the man’s life it works well but Elba’s performance feels a bit wasted on a film that could have benefited from higher aspirations.