Everyone has heard of Nelson Mandela. He is one of the most well-known and most loved figures of the last century. His story is one that most people know parts of, maybe even all of and it is a history so recent that it resonates with a number of generations who have lived through it. How then to commit it to celluloid, with the weight of experience and preconceptions hanging over it? Is it possible to take this man’s life and create something both historically accurate and cinematically moving? Well, they’ve certainly had a good go at it. The result is Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, (adapted from his autobiography of the same name), a diligent overview of a man’s struggle moulded into an evocative cinematic experience.
The film opens with a beautifully sunlit shot of the South African countryside, a slow and moving sequence of the young Mandela coming of age in the traditional rites of his village. This sets the scene of what continues throughout to be a beautifully shot piece of cinema, not merely a stroll down someone’s timeline. Although Mandela’s life is inextricably linked with the struggles in South Africa and the film uses his life as a prism through which to explore this, the film is first and foremost the life of one man and his role within this wider context. It begins with him as a young man and as was inevitably the case, focusses on only a few moments which shape his life, from many different women, to joining the ANC. We watch as the many years imprisonment take their toll, until Mandela the President comes into being.
Idris Elba couldn’t be further from his east London roots as he takes on the overwhelming task of embodying a figure so familiar. The film covers a lot of ground and races through from 1942 to his inauguration in 1994, thereby aging Mandela considerably. Inevitably, Elba gets quite grey and is required to age extensively with only a little help from the hair and make- up departments. Certainly the technical aging process is great, but it is Elba himself who brings the Mandela of recent years to life. Although faced with an incredibly daunting task, or perhaps because of this, Elba’s performance is superb. He creates a Mandela who is charismatic and someone it is easy to believe in. But it is not an image of a godlike figure, he is certainly not an ordinary man, but he is humanised, in some cases flawed. The president Mandela grows throughout the film and everything that happens moulds him into the icon he becomes.
This is not without the influence of wife, Winnie Mandela. Naomie Harris’ performance of whom makes this film a two man show. Her turn as the wife left on the outside, harassed by the government and resorting to brutal violence in the streets is utterly heartbreaking. Her role requires not only physical ageing, but a huge development of character which is jaw-dropping to see on screen. She is utterly engaging and terrifically powerful, and together with Elba’s Mandela creates a ‘two sides of the same coin’ approach to the difficult and horrifying situation which is unfolding around them.
Unsurprisingly I never had a chance to meet Nelson Mandela, but I do know someone who did. According to her, the Mandela on screen did resemble the man she met in real life, an extraordinary man who fought his whole life to change the world around him. A man’s life to which Justin Chadwick has created a moving and effective tribute in a well-meaning biopic, with stunning performances from its leading cast. It is by no means flawless, perhaps weighed down by the weight of responsibility by committing this man to screen and inevitably, given the time constraints is only a fraction of this enigmatic man’s life. The result is an uplifting cinema experience which should be taken as a starting point rather than a definitive image of the man, Nelson Mandela.