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Review: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom – Definitely long

Posted by on December 25, 2013 – 7:45 am

Mandela: Long Walk to FreedomThis is a tough position to be in, to have to bad-mouth a film based on the life of one of the most beloved political figures of the past century – especially when that person died just a few days ago and the world is still in mourning his passing. Granted, it’s not as cruel as having to live a life of racial oppression and segregation, and spending 27 years in prison for standing up for your beliefs, but nevertheless, I have to say that Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is, sadly, more like a mediocre History Channel biopic than a big screen dramatic production.

I’m certain that director Justin Chadwick, whose resume is mostly filled with British television experience, and screenwriter William Nicholson (Les Miserables) meant well with their work on this movie, but it is sorely missing the artistic spark that might have made the project rise to the level of 12 Years a Slave or The Butler, both of which are infinitely better 2013 films that focus on racial oppression.

Although Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom seems like an excessively long film while watching it, the movie only briefly touches on the details of the man’s life, beginning with his childhood and his career as a legal counselor, his first marriage and his early involvement with the ANC (African National Congress) political party. If you are looking for a lot of visual exposition for this part of his Mandela’s life, you are going to be disappointed; instead it’s a simple “he was married,” okay, let’s show him with a woman – next!

Mandela: Long Walk to FreedomNelson Mandela (Idris Elba) divorces and then quickly remarries to Winnie Madikizela (Naomie Harris – who you might recognize as Eve Moneypenny from Skyfall) and his comrades from the ANC begin bombing South African government buildings, and when caught they are sentenced to life in prison.

Mandela was jailed from 1964 – 1990, and for this portion of the film it is as boring as sitting in prison cell must be. Nothing really happens except members of his family die and he writes some letters. Please keep in mind, I don’t mean to make light of Mandela’s plight – I have huge respect for the man – but I’m judging the film on its own merits.

I’m not sure how the filmmakers should have depicted the prison experience in a more exciting manner without embellishing the real-life drama, but maybe they should have moved the focus to Winnie Mandela instead, who made her husband a figurehead for the anti-apartheid movement and was a resourceful activist in her own right.

Mandela: Long Walk to FreedomThe film does show some of the hardships that Winnie, her children and the people of South Africa endured, but while watching this movie I kept thinking that the story told from Winnie’s perspective would have made for a much better film. While her husband sat in jail (boring) she was making exciting things happen to forward their cause of freedom.

The film also covers Mandela’s eventual release from prison, his separation from Winnie and his election as President of South Africa, but again the filmmakers do not make a great effort to make this narrative entertaining or thought-provoking, it’s all just linear and matter of fact.

Idris Elba is a fine actor, but I believe he’s better suited for action roles, like the ones for which he is best known (i.e. Pacific Rim and as Heimdall in the Thor films), rather than this type of dramatic material. As the younger Mandela I kept expecting him to kill someone with his icy stare or his steel-corded muscles; but that’s just not the Mandela we know. I thought he did a much better job portraying the older man, while his action figure presence was hidden beneath make-up and gray hair.

It’s a shame that this is not a more satisfying movie and a more fitting tribute to Nelson Mandela. You are probably much better off and will be more well informed by taking in a couple of the many documentaries and news specials about the man, that have been playing on television and cable channels since the activist’s death, than investing time in this lackluster and lengthy film. Grade: 5/10

Photos © 2013 The Weinstein Company