Friday, January 3, 2014

Movie Review: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Directed by: Justin Chadwick.
Written by: William Nicholson based on the book by Nelson Mandela.
Starring: Idris Elba (Nelson Mandela), Naomie Harris (Winnie Madikizela), Tony Kgoroge (Walter Sisulu), Riaad Moosa (Ahmed Kathrada), Zolani Mkiva (Raymond Mhlaba), Simo Mogwaza (Andrew Mlangeni), Fana Mokoena (Govan Mbeki), Thapelo Mokoena (Elias Motsoaledi), Jamie Bartlett (James Gregory), Deon Lotz (Kobie Coetzee), Terry Pheto (Evelyn Mase) , Zikhona Sodlaka (Nosekeni), S'Thandiwe Kgoroge (Albertina Sisulu), Tshallo Sputla Chokwe (Oliver Tambo), Sello Maake (Albert Luthuli), James Cunningham (George Bizos), Zenzo Ngqobe (Patrick Lekota), Gys de Villiers (President De Klerk), David Butler (Colonel Badenhorst), Robert Hobbs (Chief Warder).

The late Nelson Mandela was a great man, and he deserves to have a great movie made about him. Unfortunately, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is not that movie. It falls into the same trap that many biopics do in that it tries to do too much. The end result comes across as a greatest hits collection of Mandela’s life – a few scenes of him as a child, followed by a few scenes of him as a lawyer, which brings him to the attention of the African National Congress (ANC) who recruit him, and then a few scenes of him giving speeches, followed by a few scenes of Mandela the revolutionary, a few scenes of him courting Winnie Madikzlea, scenes of him in jail, his release, his eventual rise to power, etc. Everything is covered, but nothing is covered with any sort of depth, so nothing really has the impact it should have. All of that is a shame, because based on the movie Idris Elba could have made a great Nelson Mandela in a movie that didn’t try to do so much, and Naomie Harris could have made a great Winnie Mandela. But every time the movie tries to settle into a groove, it zooms off to the next scene, and leaves what was working behind.

I wasn’t the biggest fan of Clint Eastwood’s Invictus a few years ago – it was a fine film, but hardly a masterpiece – but it had the right idea when it came to Nelson Mandela – concentrate on one, small incident, and use that to illuminate the entire man. Morgan Freeman’s subtle performance as Mandela was the best thing about that movie – and turned the mountain of a man into a living, breathing person. That is the challenge for all biopics about famous people. In recent years, the best ones are the ones that do what Invictus does – not try to show everything about a person, but one a small part of their lives. This is what made Spielberg’s Lincoln so effective last year – it didn’t try to tell his complete story, just his battle to abolish slavery. There are exceptions to the rule of course – Spike Lee’s Malcolm X comes to mind as a film that covered its central persona from beginning to end and worked brilliantly – but for the most part it simply doesn’t work.

All of that is a shame, because the work by Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela is truly wonderful. He somehow manages to make Mandela into more than a mere symbol and icon – in his best scenes, you can see his humanity coming through, and you can see how he grows and matures through the years – first towards violence, and then away from it. Naomie Harris is no less impressive as Winnie, although her performance suffers even more from cramming too much into the movie. Winnie Mandela’s legacy is much more complicated than her ex-husband’s – her anger and her embrace of violence for far longer than his makes her a still controversial figure. Harris captures that righteous anger – you hardly blame her for embracing violence given what we see her go through. Where the movie fails is to show how she and her husband move in different directions – and why – and just what Winnie Mandela did.

It’s also disappointing that Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom ends when it does – with Nelson Mandela being elected President of South Africa. Perhaps Mandela’s greatest achievement – and lasting legacy worldwide – is the Truth and Reconciliation hearings – where victims and perpetrators alike could come and give testimony without fear of reprisals. This has been adopted by many countries as a way of dealing with the dark chapters in their own history – but the movie ends before they even begin. It ends before we see Mandela do anything as President.

At two hours and twenty minutes, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a long movie. Its subject deserves that time – and more – in a movie. Yet, I cannot help but think that a movie of this length – or longer – would have benefitted from being more narrowly focused – had it concentrated on one part of Mandela’s life, that the filmmakers could then use to illustrate the man in full. As it stands, this greatest hits package is a letdown – and not nearly the film its great subject deserves.

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