From boyhood to presidency, Justin Chadwick offers a solid biopic of Nelson Mandela, the iconic world statesman who achieved a political and moral miracle in South Africa.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Invictus by Alexa Dalby
It would feel almost disrespectful to criticise this film and luckily there is no real need to. It’s a respectful dramatisation of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom and it covers the events of his remarkable life from his boyhood, to his politicisation, activism, trial and imprisonment through to his inauguration as South Africa’s first democratically elected, and first black, president.
It seems like just one more extraordinary event from Nelson Mandela’s life that his death occurred in Johannesburg during the film’s Royal Film Performance in London, which was attended by his daughters Zindzi and Zenani. And his strange coincidence of his death, and then the days of mourning and his funeral televised around the world, makes the film’s opening voiceover, a quote from the book, all the more poignant. “I have the same dream night after night. I am coming home,” we hear, as we see first Mandela as a boy (Atandwa Kani) roaming the rolling hills around his home of Qunu herding cows and then we come full circle as the elderly Mandela strides those same hills surrounded by children, relishing the family life he had been deprived of for so long.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a carefully made, respectful, chronological account of what made Mandela who he was and the price he had to pay. It uses newsreel footage and music of the times, and, if any criticism had to be made, it’s that it tries to fit in too many of the events from Mandela’s long life. This gives it a compressed, episodic feel and there are times when it misses a deeper insight into the character of the man – and perhaps also any strong depiction of the evils of apartheid. But all the main events are there: the ANC struggle, his emerging leadership, the Sharpville Massacre, his time in hiding, arrest as a terrorist, the Rivonia trial, imprisonment for life on Robben Island, the Soweto uprising, the international campaign to free him and eventually his wooing by the government of President de Klerk, his steadfast refusal to power share and insistence on universal suffrage, and his release from prison and his subsequent victory at South Africa’s first free elections.
As well as the public events, the film also shows Mandela, the man and his private life, and doesn’t shirk from the break-up of his first marriage to Evelyn (Terry Pheto) amid his womanising and violence. It follows his relationship with his second wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and shows the importance of her contribution to the struggle – their falling in love, and after his imprisonment, left alone in Soweto with two small children, how she suffered from police intimidation, her fierce resistance and her 17-month-long imprisonment in solitary confinement and torture. This brutal treatment changed her irrevocably and spurred her militancy on her release, eventually causing the rift between them. It recreates the images seen live around the world of his final release from prison hand in hand with Winnie in 1990. They were only together for four years and apart for 27, and their beliefs and actions diverged – “We were alone for too long,” he says. Though he still loves Winnie, he loves her as he was. He comments, “What they have done to my wife is their only victory over me.”
Idris Elba (best known until now for The Wire), who at first had seemed an unlikely choice after such previous incarnations of Mandela as Sidney Poitier and Morgan Freeman, is impressive. He captures the intonation of Mandela’s voice uncannily, especially in his evocation of the famous courtroom speech in defiant defence as he and his ANC comrades face the death penalty. Elba is particularly good as he ages from forties to eighties, changing his gait and posture to that of an elderly man. Where we would like to know more of Mandela, though, is where we know least – the complicated politics of his secret discussions with the South African government which led to the dismantling of apartheid. Naomie Harris (Skyfall) is also excellent as Winnie, giving a spirited performance although she does not resemble her physically. But her part dwindles during Mandela’s imprisonment and ends with his release and their separation. Although the main roles are taken by leading British actors – presumably to boost international sales – the South African actors Tony Kgorodo (Walter Sisulu) and Tshallo Sputla Chokwe (Oliver Tambo) hold their own in an international cast.
Although Mandela granted the film rights to a producer whom he knew personally, South African Anant Singh, and is said to have approved the film, it took 16 years to bring to the screen and 33 drafts of the script, a difficult decision being at which point in Mandela’s life to end the film. Much of the dialogue is taken directly from the autobiography. Justin Chadwick’s direction is unobtrusive yet sufficiently pacy, probably what a film like this needs. This isn’t a Hollywood movie, it’s a conventional, sensitive and almost reverential portrait of a man who arguably achieved more and was mourned more than any other single human being in history and thankfully, maybe because it pulls no surprises, it stands up to the spotlight shone on it by his death. In South Africa, where it had been released a couple of weeks earlier, audiences flocked to see it after Mandela’s death was announced and it seems a fitting memorial.
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is released on 3rd January 2013 in the UK