Saturday 2 May 2020

Movie Review: Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom (2013)

A biographical epic of South Africa's revolutionary leader and ultimately President Nelson Mandela, Long Walk To Freedom is a warts-and-all recounting of a remarkable life.

The film chronicles key events experienced and shaped by Mandela (Idris Elba). Starting as an impassioned lawyer in the 1940s, he is spotted by leaders of the African National Congress fighting against the apartheid regime. Initially not interested, the introduction of additional laws to increase racial segregation followed by a massacre of innocent civilians in a black township turn Mandela towards activism, and he becomes a prominent ANC campaigner.

Mandela's frequent absence from home and womaning break apart his first marriage, and he soon falls in love with Winnie (Naomie Harris) who becomes his second wife. By the early 1960s the regime is increasingly brutal, and the ANC resorts to a campaign of violence. Mandela goes underground, but is eventually captured, tried and sentenced along with his key associates to life in prison on Robben Island.

Winnie remains active and is herself incarcerated and separated from her young children, and she becomes increasingly militant in her hatred of the regime. By the 1970s, an international movement to free Mandela starts to gain momentum, while South Africa is stifled by economic sanctions and starts to experience wide-scale street violence and economic misery.

Long Walk To Freedom best resembles Gandhi, with all the praise and pitfalls built into the comparison. Mandela's story is an earnest 146 minutes tracing the South African leader's transformation from idealistic but skirt-chasing lawyer to unifying and peace-promoting President, passing through 27 years of incarceration.

But in both form and construct, Long Walk To Freedom could have been made in 1982, and the storytelling stodginess that used to pass as epic is less tolerable more than 30 years later. Director Justin Chadwick magnificently recreates South Africa of the 1940s, and the dusty tension between the white ruling class and the majority coloured population creates electricity in most scenes. But otherwise the William Nicholson script, adapting Mandela's autobiography, is unable to elevate the material much beyond conventional biopic standards.

The middle act featuring life-in-prison for Mandela and his key ANC associates is particularly flat. Chadwick and Nicholson fail to capture any meaningful milestone moments, and the film becomes choppy, shifting to wife Winnie's struggles and militarization but without fully investing in her story.

The loss of momentum is key, as the final flourish is both undermined and prolonged. As the international movement to free Mandela gains momentum he is moved to more tolerable house arrest conditions. Power-sharing negotiations start with the ruling party, but the foundations for Mandela's defining principles guiding the talks are sketched-in at best.

However, the strength of the film resides in the subject matter, and Chadwick avoids any hints of a hagiography. With Idris Elba in robust form and benefiting from good make-up work supported by Naomie Harris transitioning from seductress to strong-headed leader, Long Walk To Freedom paints a vivid picture of a couple who changed a nation. Their relationship falls into the crevasse of forced separation and they are imperfect as individuals. But altering the course of history is rarely, if ever, perfect.

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