Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

The great South African leader and international peace icon Nelson Mandela lived just long enough to see Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, which reduces his life down to the same generic, uninspiring, threadbare biopic that so many other important individuals have been lucky enough to die before having seen. Even by the standards of cinema’s weakest genre, Long Walk to Freedom disappoints on virtually every front. Screenwriter William Nicholson (Shadowlands, Gladiator, Les Misérables) and director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) don’t so much adapt Mandela’s biography into a narrative film as they compress it into a linear outline of key events and important facts, which they zip through at breakneck pace as if checking off boxes on an elementary school history test. No scene lasts long enough to get us inside the man the movie is ostensibly about. The script contains no characters - just representations of attitudes, ideas and behaviors. Even Mandela’s wife Winnie (played by Skyfall’s Naomie Harris), despite her significant screen time, never becomes anything more than a pretty device used to telegraph her husband’s emotions and ideals to the audience.

The one pleasure we can usually count on from a biopic is an impressive lead performance, but the powerful British actor Idris Elba (HBO's The Wire, BBC's Luther) is given so little to work with that even this key ingredient is missing from the film. Apart from the expected couple of major speeches, there just aren’t any scenes for an actor to play, and Elba is left staring off camera in close-up after close-up, trying to convey something more than the movie’s surface-deep treatment of its hero. The film finally does slow down and begin to get perceptive only after Mandela turns 70 and becomes the brilliant leader and peacemaker that most audiences are already familiar (and comfortable) with. This is the same figure Morgan Freeman portrayed so insightfully in Clint Eastwood’s 2009 film Invictus, which provides far more insight into the great man at this historical stage of his life than any biopic would have time for. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom squanders the opportunity present the Mandela audiences don’t know so well, the young freedom fighter who sacrificed so much in order to inspire his people to take back their country. We get the Wikipedia version of this life, but none of the drama or spirit, and in the end, we are left without a substantive understanding of Mandela’s true importance in world history.

Directed by Justin Chadwick
Produced by Anant Singh

Screenplay by William Nicholson
Based on the book Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

With: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Zolani Mkiva, Simo Mogwaza, Fana Mokoena, Thapelo Mokoena, Jamie Bartlett, Deon Lotz, Terry Pheto, and Zikhona Sodlaka

Cinematography: Lol Crawley
Editing: Rick Russell
Music: Alex Heffes

Runtime: 141 min
Release Date: 25 December 2013
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1