Very often the problem with movies about great people is that they become such reverential portraits that they rob their subjects of their very humanness. That’s certainly true of Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, based on the autobiography of South African leader Nelson Mandela. It’s an earnest, honorable effort, but does little to deepen our sense of the man, and ultimately never really crystallizes into anything more than a bullet-point biopic.
Over 2 hours and 20 minutes, the film, directed by Justin Chadwick, dutifully chronicles more or less Mandela’s entire adult life, starting with his involvement in anti-apartheid activism as a young lawyer in 1940s Johannesburg. We watch as he is arrested and convicted of terrorist activities, spends 27 years in prison, and is eventually elected South Africa’s first black president. There’s no question that the film covers solid ground. It even captures facets of Mandela’s weaknesses – the womanizing that led to the collapse of his first marriage, the distance that grew between him and his second wife Winnie Madikizela, even the difficult relationship that he shared with his son. Yet you can’t shake off the feeling that the film is just skimming the surface of events that shaped the life of this great man. Mandela was an inspiration, so steadfast in his dream that he remained an icon until his dying breath. Mandela: A Long Walk To Freedom reduces this towering figure to a cardboard cutout by merely listing his achievements without a keen sense of perspective.
Leading man Idris Elba has tremendous presence, and it’s put to good use as he conveys Mandela’s charisma. His early scenes stand out — the fiery speeches, his passion for Winnie, the anger that colors his activism, and his determined fight to earn dignity as a prisoner by demanding long pants instead of shorts. As an old man, Elba’s make-up is chalky and gets in the way of his resolute performance. Naomie Harris as the controversial, colorful character Winnie, is so spirited that she breathes fire into her part. Her outrage is palpable and you’re captivated in that one telling scene where she urinates in defiance on a cop’s shoes, even though she has been tortured for days. It almost makes you wish that this were the untold story of Nelson and Winnie – a marriage unraveling just as history was being written.
In the end, Mandela: A Long Walk To Freedom offers a one-dimensional, vanilla portrait of one of history’s most relevant figures. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five. It’s a perfectly adequate summing up of Mandela’s life. Unfortunately, this real-life hero deserved so much more.