Though death, by its very nature, is a remorseful, tragic affair; when someone like Nelson Mandela had lived a life so full and so inspirational, sometimes the only way to respond is to celebrate their wondrous achievements, and it’s a notion that is explored in Justin Chadwick’s biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. It’s a film that commemorates a triumphant existence, as we look back with a sense of pride, that he, in the face of a brutal adversity, became one of the most empowering, influential men in modern history.
Idris Elba takes on the eponymous role, as our journey begins when Mandela is a budding, studious
lawyer who becomes bewildered and disheartened at the state of his home nation, South Africa, where a poisonous racism remains prevalent. When the black population begin to stand up and contest for their rights and for racial equality, Mandela meets the likeminded, zealous Winnie (Naomie Harris), and the pair fall in love. However their romance is cut short when Mandela is imprisoned for life given his spectacular rise to notoriety as a consequence of his involvement in the ANC’s Defiance Campaign. Spending 27 years in confinement, in the meantime South Africa is torn apart by the apartheid, and it takes the return of this beacon of hope to instil some faith and optimism in a fractured nation, as Mandela is inaugurated as the first democratically elected president.
Despite the good intentions and spirited nature of this piece, Chadwick, alongside screenwriter William Nicholson, have attempted to cover too much ground. Mandela lived such a life that it is almost impossible to truly capture the entire thing in two hours of cinema. The filmmakers seem overly concerned to mechanically tick off all of the historical events that took place that we don’t have the chance to stop and ponder anything, as we deviate away from intimacy in the narrative. It would have been far more effective if a particular strand of his life was explored, which would allow us the chance to emotionally engage with the story at hand. Even so, Elba turns in a fine performance, though question marks remains over the suitability of his casting. The British actor radiates a natural charisma in the same way Mandela did, yet he doesn’t bear a physical resemblance, and regrettably it takes you out of the story somewhat. He’s too imposing a figure to truly capture that distinctive vulnerability that Mandela had too, particularly in his later years.
Such factors sadly result in a film that’s emotionally detached and disengaging, which is a real surprise given the poignant, impactful story that is being presented. Nonetheless, now seems as good a time as ever to embark on this walk to freedom, it’s just a mighty shame that it is not nearly as fulfilling as it had the potential to be.