During the London premiere of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela’s daughters, Zindzi and Zenai, got the news that their father had passed away. The rest of the audience, however, was not told until after the credits. It seems weirdly cinematic, but fitting, that the film based on Mandela’s autobiography of the same title should have such an epic, if sad, premiere. I only wish that the film itself had more clearly captured the complicated journey that was Mandela’s life.
Don’t get me wrong, Mandela is a gorgeous movie and features phenomenal performances. The artistry with which the film is made, paired with the source material and the timing, all have the making of a Best Picture-worthy film. But, because Mandela seeks to cover over 40 years of complicated history and personal struggle in two and a half hours, it ends up feeling like a Cliff’s Notes version of the story: you get the basic idea, but can never really feel engrossed. Mandela (Idris Elba) takes the audience through the famed South African president and Nobel Peace Prize winner’s life from his early career as a lawyer and the beginnings of his political work to fight against the oppression of apartheid. We see the failings of his first marriage and his romance with Winnie Madikizela (Naomie Harris) and then their life apart as Mandela spends 27 years in prison and Winnie is left to raise their young daughters and continue his work.
Each scene seems like it’s about thirty seconds long and as the story clips along, leaving out transitions and important information the narrative becomes increasingly confusing. You’re left to wonder why the police badger and then imprison Winnie Mandela, because we’re not shown her continued political work. The film assumes that the audience understands the historical events and therefore provides little exposition. It feels like multiple movies abridged into one screening. I’m left to wonder why, if Peter Jackson can make as many movies based on The Hobbit as he wants, we couldn’t have a trilogy on Nelson Mandela: the pre-prison years, prison and what Winnie was up to, and the Morgan Freedman years. Nelson Mandela’s life is epic enough for that, I think.
Despite these failings in the screenplay, Mandela is still a wonderfully crafted film. The use of the natural beauty of South Africa adds a much needed space to breathe in the midst of the intense and violent scenes that make up most of the film. When the film actually lingers in scenes, they are actually striking in the way they are framed; from camera angles, to set dressings, there are plenty of rich details. Although it was on the sentimental side, I really liked the way the story visually called back a couple of times to the opening scene in which Mandela describes a dream he has about all the people he loves being together in his house in Orlando Township, and his memories of the ceremony in which he became a man. It’s a striking visual, a boy covered in ash and then ritually bathing, that is (not very subtly) recreated as Mandela, a prisoner, breaks apart stones in a quarry, getting covered in dust in order to become a new man.
The greatest part of the film, however, is the acting. There is an ensemble cast of talented actors who we never really get to meet because of the pacing, but Idris Elba as Mandela is amazing. From his accent to his mannerisms, he nails the part in a way that never feels like imitation or caricature. The only flaw is that, with his build, his attempt to walk like an elderly man is nearly laughable. Naomie Harris is a force of nature as Winnie Mandela. Tasked with taking a character from her happy, intense youth, through unspeakable hardship, and into angry political work, Harris is able to portray intense emotions with a clarity and nuance that smolders. More clearly than the historical events themselves, the film shows the emotional and personal price the Mandelas paid to fight for their people.
For outstanding filmmaking, but a weak screenplay and pacing, I rate Mandela 3/5 stars.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom was written by William Nicholson, based on the book by Nelson Mandela, and directed by Justin Chadwick. It runs 141 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and disturbing images, sexual content and brief strong language.
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