Written by Lily Davis.
After the recent death of Nelson Mandela in December of last year, all eyes turned to the release of his biopic and its representation of the legendary man. Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom had actually been in the works for many, many years before production. The project finally gained momentum thanks to producer Anant Singh and director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl), who collaborated on The First Grader in 2010. Together, they developed a vision for this reflection on a fascinating life.
The film chronicles Nelson Mandela’s early life, the 27 years he spent imprisoned, up to his eventual election in the first democratic South African election. The movie spans around 50 years and paints a broad picture of this time.
British actor Idris Elba plays Mandela and Naomie Harris is by his side as wife Winnie. The performances from both stars are fantastic. They convey the extraordinary spirit of these figures and there is a genuine chemistry between the two. That said, perhaps they weren’t given as much to work with as they should have been. Many of their most powerful moments in the film feel cut short and, as a result, Elba and Harris do not have the time or material to deliver that strong emotional punch. Though the cast does work well with what they have, it often feels as though the characters aren’t completely fleshed out. Still, both mains have a grounded, commanding presence.
The main failing of Mandela is that it simply tries to cover too much ground. Adapted from the 700-page memoir Long Walk To Freedom, the film seems overly ambitious. Many successful biopics of late have chosen to focus on one very specific element of the person’s life. Capote solely depicted the period where Truman Capote was writing In Cold Blood. The Queen examined the life of Queen Elizabeth at the time surrounding Princess Diana’s death. This type of specificity allowed the directors to examine their protagonists with a newfound detail and insight. Nothing about Mandela feels in-depth. It is quite a simplistic film for such a complex story. It seems screenwriter William Nicholson (Gladiator) packed too much into the script and no one pointed out the flaw in this approach, through any stage of production.
Even so, the script is brought to life with great energy and the film is filled with memorable images. It is incredibly moving to witness the camera panning over masses of people united by such a significant common cause and shots of the South African landscape are beautiful to behold. Justin Chadwick demonstrates capable direction, but he is let down by his ambition to pack too much into one film. Mandela is comprised of very short scenes, allowing the film to unfold with strong momentum, but without allowing the camera to linger long enough to draw meaning from what’s shown. This fast pace slows a little once Mandela is incarcerated, however there is simply too much ground to cover for the film to ever settle completely.
While the director doesn’t completely shy away from depicting the darker elements of this story, like everything in this film, they aren’t explored in enough depth. The film is lacking serious grit. The context of this story, a time of horrifying conflict, warrants heavy drama. Instead, the devastation and rawness of emotion often feels toned down.
Mandela is at times incredibly stirring, but it’s a film carried almost entirely by the man’s well-known story. If you are already familiar with it, then the film will not necessarily offer anything new. No revelations are made and no real insight is gained. Ultimately, this is a powerful and significant story. Mandela illustrates the importance of equality, respect, and, above all, love over hate. It’s only unfortunate that Chadwick seems happy to deliver a film that, while solid, sweeps broadly over the life of a legendary man.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10