Director: Justin Chadwick
Starring: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Zolani Mkiva
Written by: William Nicholson and (based on his autobiography, The Long Walk To Freedom) Nelson Mandela
Running Time: 139 mins
Release date: 3rd January 2014
After the recent events of Nelson Mandela’s passing, I went into the screening of this biopic of his life with great expectations and I am sad to report that I came out somewhat disappointed. I feel guilty for saying this but with all its good intentions and its fine performances, it lacks the impact I was hoping for and it did come across like an expensive, extended TV movie.
Starting with his life as a talented attorney, Nelson Mandela is encouraged to join the rising ANC and their power battles against white supremacy. Having had one wife and being a womanizer, Mandela soon joins the group, sabotaging several important buildings along the way. He meets and falls in love with Winnie Madikizela, who he eventually marries. However, the law enforcement and the government of South Africa aren’t so happy with Mandela and his ANC band, arresting him and finding him guilty of crimes against the state, he is sent to prison but his status as a man who could change a country is echoed around the world, wanting a peaceful settlement while his wife follows a different path.
It could have been very easy for me to say that this is the movie event of the year and should be lauded with awards but I feel that is exactly what it wants. It screams out “Look at me, Academy!” However, in the process, it has forgotten elements like pacing. I am not denying that Mandela’s story isn’t a fascinating one; a man who went from attorney to freedom fighter to world hero, it’s just that there is so much that happened, 2 hours 20 mins doesn’t seem long enough to cover everything.
So what we get is a very rushed first half, where we are only given glimpses of the man before his arrest. Something happens here, quick move on. Something else happens, quick move on. Not enough time is spent on the individual events. Mandela himself has stated he wasn’t a good man in his early life, yet here those elements aren’t explored enough. Then the second hour is spend looking at his time as prisoner in Robbens Island. An important part of his life, understandably, but one that has been well reported and, for me, I would have liked more time on the early days of Mandela and less on his time imprisoned.
Then we get the final section, his release and how he went to becoming President and, again, well documented and powerful stuff but by the time you reach that, you feel it has certainly been a long walk.
There are elements of the story that are looked upon but not fully realised, mainly the different paths that Mandela and his wife took, reaching for the same aim. I didn’t know the turn of events that led Winnie from being a wife and mother to freedom fighter and wanting to use violence to find the same aim. This, to me, was a side that could have been focused on more. There lies the film’s biggest problem: you find yourself wanting to be informed more about the stuff that is mentioned or glossed over than the things that are on-screen and that is never a good sign.
It also suffers from a score that is more bombastic than subtle. It guides you through the story so heavy handedly that it’s almost an emotional signpost. Here you are feeling heroic. Here you will cry. Here you will feel pain. It sometimes even drowns out the dialogue.
From a performance angle, the supporting cast are fine but it’s the lead two actors who score highly. As Mandela, London actor Ibris Elba is a very controversial choice, known more for his role as tough TV detective Luther but after a few minutes in his presence as Mandela, you feel you are in safe hands. He captures the great man brilliantly and it’s an award-winning and career changing performance. The same could be said of Naomie Harris as his wife, Winnie, except she has the more challenge role, going from mild and meek to tough and almost anarchist. Harris is superb and never misses a beat, making her the more interesting of the two characters.
I wanted great things from this film and maybe in the hands of a better director and some tinkling of William Nicholson’s script, this could have been a first class, five-star film that was worthy of the man it was about. Instead it’s an OK film with great leads but one that just skims the surface.