The latter part of the year is no stranger to big name biopics – we’ll soon get a look at plenty of films based on true-life stories, from The Wolf of Wall Street to Saving Mr. Banks to Lone Survivor – but Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom stands out from the pack, thanks to an apparent interest in both honesty and covering large chunks of time without sacrificing forward momentum. The Nelson Mandela biopic isn’t the first of its kind, but it is unique in its attempts to give a warts and all look at its subject, with nods to rumors of Mandela’s frequent infidelities, to possible physical abuse inflicted on his first wife Evelyn, and those choices give a much more full look at his character and issues than previous production.
Mandela is, of course, still limited in its ability to portray such a full, large life, and the film pays little notice to Mandela’s influences (the teachings of Karl Marx and actions of Fidel Castro are of note), his eventual interest in Islam, the actual history of the African National Congress, and many other aspects of his biography, but it’s a perfectly serviceable slice of life, with excellent acting to recommend it. The film moves quickly through Mandela’s early years, providing only small looks at his childhood before picking up long after his professional career as a lawyer has taken off. Nelson is an established, powerful man by the time we settle into him, and Idris Elba demonstrates an engaging and invigorating energy as the young Mandela, a striking element of his performance that’s eventually fades into the sort of beatific peace that marks the later part of Nelson’s life.
Elba is solid in the role, but what’s most engaging about his work here is how he slowly and steadily slips into the recognizable Mandela persona. By the film’s end, Elba looks, sounds, and moves exactly like the post-prison civil rights activist that most of the population is familiar with, and comparing the different incarnations of Elba’s performance is striking.
When Mandela gets moving, the eponymous hero is interested in non-violent and law-abiding actions to change the prevalent racist attitudes and laws in his native South Africa. Nelson believes that change can come about through “education, hard work, and pride,” but his heart and aims change over time, and he eventually comes to believe that action, often of the criminal variety, is essential to winning the battle. Continued tragedy – particular the horror of Sharpesville – only spurns him on with more gusto, until the former straight arrow escalates his actions to the point that he is arrested and jailed for acts of terrorism. It’s an evolution that is essential to his progression as a leader, man, and character, and Mandela mostly makes it feel believable and understandable.
Mandela is a film about tensions between seemingly disparate elements of life during apartheid – black men are called “boy” by whites, even Nelson, a successful and in-demand lawyer; the difference between old ways of living and a progressive attitude; and the seemingly insurmountable gulf between non-violent action and violent statements – and Chadwick conveys that without making an overwrought production. The film approaches the material with an objective eye, and so much of what actually happened during the years of apartheid is heartbreaking enough that there doesn’t need to be an extra emotion added on. It’s effective stuff, and Chadwick handily keeps it from feeling, well, heavy-handed.
The film is also generous to another Mandela – Winnie, Nelson’s headstrong second wife, a controversial revolutionary in her own right. Even actress Naomie Harris was surprised by how much of Winnie’s life story is portrayed in the film, and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom pays plenty of attention to her own rise to revolution and action, even as it eventually set her in opposition to her husband. Winnie is, at least in the beginning of their romance, a fine match for Nelson – she’s beautiful, confident, and self-possessed – and Chadwick, Elba, and Harris do a stellar job of making their romance seem fated without reading as cheesy or trumped up for the screen. It is what makes the inevitable crumbling of their famous marriage all the more wrenching, even as it also clarifies why two people who want the same thing can’t make their aims work together.
The film’s first cut ran closer to three hours, but even its new, release-friendly two-and-a-half-hour runtime still manages to pack in large swathes of time in the visionary’s life. Unsurprisingly, it also includes a significant dedication of space to Mandela’s years in prison. For how swiftly it zips through the early years, perhaps losing nuance along the way, Mandela takes its time during the later part of Nelson’s fight, allowing the film to end on a note of far deeper understanding. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a well-made, clear-eyed biopic that does good work within the confines of a cinematic runtime, and one that ends on some significant high notes.
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