Movie Review ~ Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

mandela_long_walk_to_freedomThe Facts:

Synopsis: A chronicle of Nelson Mandela’s life journey from his childhood in a rural village through to his inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

Stars: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Zolani Mkiva, Jamie Bartlett, Lindiwe Matshikiza, Deon Lotz, Terry Pheto

Director: Justin Chadwick

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 139 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  I suppose it’s worth it to admit that I wasn’t very well versed in the life story of Nelson Mandela before I saw this film at the 2013 Twin Cities Film Fest.  Though I was aware peripherally of his imprisonment for 27 years and his rise to power as President of South Africa, I didn’t have the knowledge of his journey before he was jailed and what moved the man to become a voice of his people.

Though portions of Mandela’s life have been committed to film before (2009’s snoozer Invictus and 2011’s barely released and badly received Winnie, among others), no film had truly gone into detail on the man who led a nation out of apartheid.  After taking in this biopic adapted by William Nicholson (Les Misérables) from Mandela’s own autobiography I’m not sure the full story has been told, or could be told, on the life of a great leader.

It could be that the life of Mandela (who died on December 5, 2013 at the age of 95) was just too big to be confined to one film and perhaps two separate movies were warranted to really get to the heart of the man.  Though director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) does a good job of keeping several large pieces in play the film does have the tendency to get away from all involved which can leave the audience coughing up dust as years fly by in rapid succession.  More than a few times I lost track of the timeline, relying only on the impressive age make-up to help pinpoint where in Mandela’s life we were.

The entire film rests on the shoulders of British actor Idris Elba (Prometheus, Pacific Rim) and the actor disappears fully into the character even though he rarely, if ever, resembles Mandela.  It says something about the strength of a performance if an actor can convince you they are playing a real life historical figure without bearing much resemblance to said person.  (For the other end of the spectrum look at Tom Hanks’s off the mark performance as Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks).  Elba is aided by having Mandela’s speaking voice down pat and some very fine prosthetic make-up but he doesn’t rely on either, um, either.  Elba continues to be one of the more underrated actors working in Hollywood today and I’m waiting for the actor to truly get his big break.  The strength of his performance here is akin to Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, that is to say he’s giving a great performance in what amounts to an average film.

Giving great support to Elba is Naomie Harris (Skyfall) as Winnie Mandela.  The film is best when Elba and Harris are on screen together and we can watch how the two were initially attracted to each other and how their political beliefs eventually drove them apart.  Thankfully, the film doesn’t get sidelined with any sort of love story angle but it succeeds in giving equal time to Winnie’s own struggles during the time that Mandela was imprisoned.

At 139 minutes, the movie doesn’t feel long but comes up short with content that fails to go any deeper than anything you could have read in a book or an online resource.  It all felt very book report-ish rather than plumbing the depths of a true biopic of a man with many layers.  Mandela’s early years are given short shrift in favor of a more politic heavy final three quarters and I found myself wanting to know more about his family and origins because these tend to be the parts of a life that are least reported on.

When all is said and done the film is worth a watch for the performances of Elba and Harris and the chance to learn more about Mandela himself during his later years…but viewers looking for an in-depth look at Mandela’s life as a whole will be left wanting more.

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