Biopic Drama

The Power of One Film Review: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

December 25, 2013Ben MK

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People learn to hate — they can be taught to love

By Ben Mk

When Nelson Mandela passed away earlier this month, not only did the world lose one of its most important and influential leaders, it also lost one of its most outspoken proponents for peace. Even after being imprisoned for twenty-seven years, he harbored no ill will towards the South African government and championed for unity among the its peoples. His long walk to freedom — which is the subject of the film, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom — was not just traveled by him, but also by his family and the entire country of South Africa.

Idris Elba portrays the legendary leader, from his days as a young, apprentice attorney to his ascension into government, following his release from prison. The film — which is based on the autobiography that Mandela began in secret, while imprisoned on Robben Island, and completed following his release — spans some fifty years of his life and shows the milestones in the incredible public and personal journey that he made over those years. It begins in the 1940’s, with Mandela carrying out his apprenticeship and witnessing first-hand some of the inequalities that South Africa’s legal system brought to bear against its black population. A charismatic rogue and a somewhat of a womanizer, his years between 1941 and 1964 — when he and seven others were sentenced to life in prison on charges of sabotage and sent to Robben Island — sees him joining the African National Congress (ANC) liberation movement, marrying twice (the second time to social worker Winnie Madikizela, played here by Naomie Harris), opening his own law firm (of Mandela and Tambo) and having several run-ins with the law. During his long internment, the film becomes as much about the plight of Winnie Mandela, and her own transformation into a fierce leader in the struggle against apartheid, as it is about the suffering and the strengthening of character that Mandela himself undergoes. Leading up to his eventual release from prison, we get some glimpses of behind-the-scenes political maneuvering, and we get some insight on the growing rift between him and his wife — not just in their relationship but also between their views on abolishing apartheid.

The events of the film are largely left to stand on their own as an account of Mandela’s life. But because of the immense chronological ground that it has to cover, director Justin Chadwick doesn’t expend precious runtime dwelling too long on any one part of it. Instead, he opts for wrapping the film in a concise narrative and dropping viewers in on those moments that define not just the arc of the man, but also that of his wife and of their country. The approach is generally effective — largely owing to the performances of Elba and Harris, who pour enough emotion into their roles to make their characters’ journeys convincing — even though the film sometimes skips large chunks of time (admittedly, there isn’t much of a choice), which can be jarring. It does its best to highlight the impact of the civil unrest and political turmoil surrounding apartheid in South Africa, but its full scope is best appreciated by those viewers who have some pre-existing knowledge of it going in.

The Bottom Line

There isn’t much that needs to be done to dress up Mandela’s life story (nor should there be any need to), and that’s exactly how Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom presents itself. The film feels authentic in its portrayals, thanks to solid performances from Idris Elba and Naomie Harris; and the relationship between Nelson and Winnie Mandela is handled well, yet the full impact of apartheid is somehow underplayed. But no matter how you cut it, it’s an inspirational and amazing tale — and a fitting way to remember a man whose legacy will be felt for many years to come. [★★★½]

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