Based on Mandela’s 1995 autobiography of the same name, Mandela:Long Walk to Freedom was directed by Justin Chadwick, who won a BAFTA for his direction of the BBC adaptation of Bleak House and whose previous films include The Other Boleyn Girl. Chadwick has returned to his passion for historical drama.
In the late 1950s, Nelson Mandela (British actor Idris Elba) is a clever young barrister and amateur boxer who believes that the way to break the dehumanising and tyrannical system of apartheid is through education. Radicalised by events such as the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, during which the police turned their guns on unarmed protestors, he joins the ANC and embarks on a campaign of criminal sabotage. Living a life on the run, he and a group of collaborators are eventually caught and put on trial. They prepare to receive the death penalty. However, the judge is keen to show the world that South Africa is a civilised country and so they are instead jailed for life and famously incarcerated on Robben Island, where Mandela served 18 of his 27 years in captivity.
Mandela’s release from jail is preceded by fraught negotiations with nervous members of De Klerk’s cabinet. With South Africa in a state of virtual civil war, they are terrified of the consequences of handing power to the black majority. To their relief, Mandela exhorts the black electorate to use their newly won vote rather than violence in their bid for equality. The story ends with Mandela’s triumphant election as President.
As well as Mandela the politician, the film attempts to provide an insight into Mandela the man. Following a disastrous first marriage, he meets Winnie (Naomie Harris), who is also a passionate activist and fully supportive of his ANC involvement. She becomes a leader within the movement and is subjected to brutal treatment during his time in jail. By the time he is released, she is fired up with hatred and their differences of opinion leads to a very public breakdown of their relationship shortly thereafter.
Throughout the film, actual footage adds to the sense of history in the making. Beautiful scenic images from South Africa contrast with Mandela’s appallingly mean and sparse prison cell, furnished with nothing but a bucket and a blanket on the floor.
Nelson Mandela’s journey is surely one of the most extraordinary tales of our time. He was a remarkable man who exuded charisma. While Elba delivers a solid performance, there is a ponderous feel to the movie. The elderly Mandela has a stiffness about him, which is not helped by the layers of latex on Elba’s face. The film is broad brush rather than intimate, and feels at times like a TV movie. How prison shaped Mandela to become a peace-loving, philosophical, almost guru-like figure is not clear. Winnie’s passion is easier to understand, and Harris delivers an inspired performance.
This is a long film (141 minutes) and does not quite deliver the emotional intensity that its subject matter warrants. Still, it is well worth watching, if only for the fascinating history lesson it delivers.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is out in cinemas today.
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