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'A Brief History of Doing Time' Mandela Film Review by Jonathon Wilson

Sunday, January 19, 2014

 

In the first of our political film reviews Jonathon takes a look at Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and explains why he gave it a three out of five star rating...

It was a remarkable twist of fate that, as dignitaries assembled for the royal premiere of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, the man himself passed away in his Johannesburg home. An oblivious audience watched a life story unfold; unaware that Justin Chadwick’s sprawling biopic had become, through sheer chance, an obituary of the very man whose life it chronicled. 

The biopic itself is a rigid, stifling genre, and there is something inherently reductive about encompassing an entire life in a neat three-act structure. A life like that of Nelson Mandela in particular, which is long and particularly extraordinary, seems misrepresented by a two-and-a-half hour drama, its implications too far-reaching to be bookended by opening and closing credits. Despite the running time, the story seems to occur on fast-forward. Milestones are briskly surmounted and sped away from, while the more intimate ructions are swept aside with the deftest of touches. If Long Walk to Freedom is a monument to Mandela, it is one built with care and respect, but all its rougher edges have been completely planed away.

The screenplay, adapted by William Nicholson from Mandela’s own autobiography of the same name, eschews the typical framing device of the focal character looking back on their life in favour of a very clear, chronological narrative line. We know where it’s going, of course, but there are surges of dynamism lent to its progression through the use of authentic archive footage and Mandela’s own lilting voice-over. The story is of a breadth usually shied away from, and perhaps for good reason; while it is at times potent and moving, it is more often unable to sustain its own weight and pace, and the sense of boxes being checked is never quite overcome.

British actor Idris Elba in the lead role is undeniably the film’s trump card, and his presence elevates a competent failure into something more or less above-average. His performance is sharply observed, but the actor’s innate ability to convey a wealth of emotion in a single look offers a depth of character which is otherwise suppressed by Nicholson’s uncompromising narrative pace and Chadwick’s occasionally overly-respectful, reverential tone.

It’s telling that the early portion of the film focusing on a younger Mandela as an angry, brash trial lawyer and amateur boxer is by far the most interesting, spending as much time on his increasing intolerance for institutionalised racism as it does his infidelity, domestic abuse and neglectful parenting. 

As he becomes embroiled in the ANC struggle against apartheid after unnecessary police brutality leads to the death of a drunken friend, Mandela is at his most fascinating. And, in the wake of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, his radical activism and embracing of armed resistance is pleasantly at odds with the film’s overall conservatism. 

Occasionally Long Walk to Freedom is content to peel back the sentimentality and allow Mandela to speak for himself, and perhaps the most powerful of these instances is his famous speech from the dock at Pretoria in which he shares his dream for a free, democratic South Africa and his willingness to die for that ideal. From here, as Mandela is marched away to face lifetime incarceration on Robben Island in lieu of the death penalty, Chadwick elects to supplant a story of a man with a story of a legend, eager to stitch Mandela’s achievements into the fabric of history without stopping to examine exactly what those achievements cost him and the people he cared about.

The film is not shy of touching on how decades-long physical separation fractured the relationship between Nelson and Winnie Mandela, but approaches Winnie herself with noticeable trepidation, never really sure exactly what to do with her. Naomie Harris does incredibly well with what she has, but Chadwick meanders through her story. Despite the foregrounding of Nelson’s campaign on the Island for black prisoners to be allowed long trousers, it is Winnie’s contentious, persistent role in the war against apartheid which should have been the more fully-explored component. As it stands, the film is unable to balance the conflicting needs to both condemn and condone her actions at the forefront of activism, and leaves us with a frustratingly watered-down and neutral depiction of a woman who is worthy of much more. 

And in many ways, the same could be said of Long Walk to Freedom as a whole. While a capable and respectable biopic, it ultimately fails to probe such an already well-documented life to a depth we haven’t seen, heard or read about many times before. It pays homage in good faith, but a man as prolific and influential as Nelson Mandela deserves a grander tribute than this.   
            

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