Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom
The Aspen Film Society launched its 35th annual Film Fest last night with this respectful biography of Nelson Mandela, tracing South Africa’s first black president from childhood thru inauguration. Director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) and cinematographer Lol Crawley (Hyde Park on the Hudson) provide journeyman contributions in their respective crafts, but William Nicholson’s screenplay rarely gets beneath the skins of it’s characters, making this 2 & ½ hour movie a solid history lesson rather than a first-class drama.
The film begins promisingly enough, with a visually evocative recreation of Mandela’s early childhood as a member of the royal Thembu family, culminating in the initiation rites that marked his formal entrance into Xhosa tribal manhood. Then the screenplay jumps to Mandela as young attorney, tracing his progress from courtroom defender of his oppressed countrymen to loving if over-committed husband and father. Impressed by his legal training and skills, The African National Congress recruits Mandela into its fledgling freedom movement and he soon begins to play an increasingly important role in the political effort to win equal rights for black South Africans. When peaceful demonstrations for that goal produce no results, the ANC switched to the violent tactics for which it became known around the world.
It’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t try to minimize Mandela’s role in that phase of his country’s drive towards racial equality. By the time the leaders of the movement are arrested, tried and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben’s Island, Mandela credentials as a revolutionary leader were firmly established, making him a national political figure who grew to embody the aspirations of all those seeking an end to South Africa’s apartied regime.
Idris Elba, an English actor with extensive U. S. television series experience (The Office, The Wire, The Big C) as well as numerous supporting parts in recent Hollywood action movies (Thor, Prometheus, Pacific Rim) may be one of the very best actors you’ve often seen but never heard of – strikingly handsome, physically imposing and possessed of a rich baritone voice other members of his profession would surely die for, Elba has the presence and gravitas necessary to vividly convey Mandela’s magnetism. Yet as the years of imprisonment stretch into decades, the script fails to get beneath the harsh reality of prison life and the indignities to which ANC leaders were subjected to explore how Mandela drew compassion from his suffering rather than vengefulness.
The world now knows that during his incarceration, a young firebrand developed into a wise statesman who would first require and then personify the commitment to multiracial peace that led to his Nobel Prize in 1993 and his election as president a year later. But whereas make-up artist Duncan Jarman ages Elba physically, Nicholson’s script fails to allow it’s gifted lead to capture the evolution of Mandela’s understanding of himself and his mission. As a consequence, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom provides a static view of an aging contemporary hero rather that a nuanced portrait of his metamorphosis into the stuff of legend.
Naomie Harris (Skyfall, Pirates of the Caribbean) steals many of her scenes playing Mandela’s second wife Winnie, as she evolves from adoring young wife into embittered prisoner in her own right, finally becoming the vengeful celebrity whose commitment to “the cause” led to separation and divorce after Mandela’s release from prison. She’s really the only other fully-developed character here; the remainder of the large cast serves only to flesh out the historical events while hinting at the enormous cost paid by black South Africans in achieving the results identified in the film’s full title.
The Verdict? Great history, solid acting from the leads, but a reverential treatment of Mandela rather than a particularly insightful one.
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