Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom Review – The Elba Enigma


Director: Justin Chadwick

Writer: William Nicholson (screenplay), Nelson Mandela (autobiography)

Stars: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa


Release date: January 3rd, 2014

Distributors: 20th Century Fox, The Weinstein Company

Countries: UK, South Africa

Running time: 146 minutes


 

 

2½/5

Best part: Elba and Harris.

Worst part: The confused narrative.

Throughout the 20th century, certain political figures and celebrities reached for the stars. They ignored backlash and threats to conquer their dreams and make the world a better place. This may seem sappy, but humanity’s more positive aspects can reshape the world’s structures. One such person was Nelson Mandela. Mandela comes to mind at opportune moments. Mandela proved that one person really could make a difference. With his death shattering the world last year, he was an inspirational public figure and determined human being. Inevitably, biopics about this spectacular man, over the past decade, have come thick and fast.

Idris Elba.

Idris Elba.

The most recent entry in this blissfully specific genre, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, wholeheartedly strives to blanket his immense life story. This broad and aimless docudrama travels down a familiar road. Covering typical biopic trappings, the movie becomes a vacuously unsuccessful Oscar-hungry monster. Looking back on Mandela’s significant life story, the movie’s wavering and untrustworthy reach exceeds its weak grasp. However, despite the wasted potential, it still features several overwhelmingly commendable qualities. Despite this enthralling tale, the movie explores and comments on too much at once. Despite my harsh words, these criticisms are warranted. To take on a project of this magnitude, studios must step back, hire commendable writers and directors, and let certain biopics follow specific paths. Sadly, this production’s producers and studios sugarcoat this fascinating narrative. Long Walk to Freedom begins with a teenage Mandela embracing South Africa’s rich tribal culture. Becoming one with the four elements, Mandela convinces himself he’s ready for a purposeful and daunting life. The movie then jumps forward, and a 30-something Mandela (Idris Elba) is presented as the black community’s spirited saviour. Standing up for innocent civilians in court, he becomes a prolific symbol of black power and freedom. Protesting legislation changes as part of the African National Congress, Mandela promotes equality whilst speaking out against apartheid.

 

Naomie Harris.

Naomie Harris.

Biopics usually go one of two ways: either focusing on specific parts of a person’s life (Lincoln) or depicting timelines covering everything from humble beginnings to untimely deaths (Ghandi). Despite this story’s commendable aspects, Long Walk to Freedom doesn’t deliver new information. Everyone with some knowledge of global affairs is aware of Mandela’s immense power and courage. Relying intensely on well-known facts and archival footage, the movie delivers a broad and underwhelming account of Mandela’s journey. The movie’s tagline reads: “Revolutionary. Prisoner. President”. Sadly, the movie provides precious little depth beyond these three significant words. Here, Mandela’s actions, motivations, and internal conflicts are under-utilised. The movie never examines Mandela’s ethical, spiritual, and moral codes. Presenting this strong-willed man as an all-encompassing symbol, the movie resembles a statue. Admittedly, this is a strange statement. However, like a statue, the movie presents a towering presence without utilising emotional weight or humanistic qualities. In addition, Long Walk to Freedom is just as static. Despite its inspirational narrative, this cumbersome biopic is inflicted with clumsy pacing and jarring tonal shifts. Screenwriter William Nicholson (Gladiator) inconsistently juggles this story’s cognitive and note-worthy qualities. Awkwardly lurching from one important event to the next, Mandela’s life is summed up in brief sequences. Throughout the first third, this biopic shifts from one incident, momentous moment, and ideal to another without warning. Confusingly, Mandela himself hurriedly transitions from womanising lawyer, to sensitive family man, to proud revolutionary. Despite the speeches and exposition, the movie doesn’t deliberate on his story’s most informative and miraculous qualities. Unfortunately, Long Walk to Freedom becomes The Butler’s slightly more interesting counterpart. Sharing similar structural, thematic, and dramatic issues, these movies delve only skin deep into all-important narratives.

“It is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” (Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba), Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom).

Idris Elba & Naomie Harris.

Idris Elba & Naomie Harris.

Obviously, Mandela’s journey is a significant part of black history. Recently, Hollywood has explored this overarching topic to uncover relevant stories whilst developing inspired creations. From big-budget fare (Django Unchained) to enrapturing docudramas (12 Years a Slave), cinema has placed an effecting stranglehold on this conquering issue. With minorities receiving harsh treatment across the globe, historically impactful stories defy prejudice and social anxiety. Despite its narrative shifts, Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, by depicting one specific period of Mandela’s life story, captured his ideologies and motivations. Despite its social, political, and cultural value, Long Walk to Freedom inadvertently presents itself as ‘yet another’ Mandela biopic. Unfortunately, like J. EdgarLong Walk to Freedom stumbles before reaching its subject’s most remarkable conflicts. Thankfully, the stellar production design provides several stimulating intricacies for this tedious biopic. Director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) revels in this time period’s distinct colours, moods, and flavours. Presenting remarkable scenic vistas and tangible city settings, Chadwick’s attention to detail delivers an unconscionable portrait of apartheid-stricken South Africa. Each setting and costume efficiently bolsters this uncompromising and accurate depiction of Mandela’s journey. In particular, the prison sequences are painful reminders of man’s overwhelming inhumanity throughout history. Thankfully, this shapeless biopic is salvaged by two invigorating performances. Elba, known for conquering TV series’ (LutherThe Wire) and entertaining action flicks (Pacific RimThor), boosts this dreary and conventional biopic. Despite lacking Mandela’s distinctive appearance, Elba overcomes previous roles whilst immersing himself in this breathtaking journey. Exploring Mandela’s native language and distinctive accent, Elba’s towering portrayal unconscionably elevates this confused Oscar contender. Elba – thanks to his impressive physique – presents Mandela as a fighter and fearsome leader. Naomie Harris also delivers a charismatic performance. As Mandela’s determined wife Winnie, Harris embodies her character’s searing pain and overwhelming courage.

Sporting two impressive performances, stark production values, and an impactful marketing campaign, Long Walk to Freedom hurriedly immerses its mass audience into this sprawling tale. Unfortunately, the movie lacks the intelligence, sturdy structure, and efficient screenplay needed for this intriguing premise. Despite the writer, director, and Weinstein Company’s commendable intentions, this biopic is obliterated by hasty studio decisions, gigantic preconceptions, and tedious biopic cliches.

Verdict: A meandering and insipid biopic. 

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