Nelson Mandela’s death last month unleashed a public tide of mourning for the memory and celebration of the life of the man who endured decades of imprisonment under South Africa’s brutal apartheid regime and emerged to lead his country into democracy. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, a film based on his autobiography of the same name, is under extra scrutiny for being released so soon after his death. How far have director Justin Chadwick and screenwriter William Nicholson succeeded in telling his life story?
The film shows Mandela’s beginnings as a lawyer in Johannesburg, his growing involvement in the anti-apartheid movement, his eventual imprisonment, and the struggle for him, his family and his people to resist the state during his imprisonment. Idris Elba, in the central role, is terrific at conveying these layers of experience, whether it is Mandela’s charisma in speaking to a crowd, or his silent near-despair as he takes in the prison cell where he expects to spend the rest of his life. The film also avoids becoming a hagiography by depicting Mandela’s troubled first marriage and his support for violence when peaceful protest failed. The film further explores the role of violence in the anti-apartheid struggle through the character of Mandela’s second wife Winnie (Naomie Harris), who embraces it after being harassed by police while he is in prison.
However, half a century of complex political, social and personal change is impossible to cover fully in a two-hour film, and the plot whisks too quickly from one event to the next, without showing how they developed. It falls into the trap common to almost all biopics – to be fair to the subject, it is required to give a truthful account of their life, but the need to stick to the facts leads to a lack of emotional depth and creative filmmaking. Secondary characters, such as Mandela’s fellow prisoners, are left undeveloped and have to deliver some heavily expository dialogue, meaning none of the actors apart from Elba are able to give performances of note. The cinematography is effective but conventional in recording the period setting. There are also some very obvious music choices, such as ‘Fight the Power’ over a news montage of township riots. However, several wordless sequences are memorably put together. I was particularly struck by two scenes – one showing a protest where an exhilarated Mandela and his comrades board a whites-only train, and another showing the brutal Sharpeville massacre in which 69 people were killed. They embody Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom – it’s hard not to enjoy because it tells such a remarkable and inspiring story, but there’s nothing particularly interesting about how the film tells it.