Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom review

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Mandela Long Walk to Freedom yellow light Idris Elba

Bit of a shame that a man who looms so large in the hearts and minds of so many has been packed neatly away into a film that is handsome, respectable, and just a tad stodgy.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Ah, the Important Film. Nelson Mandela is a significant figure in South African history and around the world as an inspiration to the oppressed and the disenfranchised, and his story has been screaming to be told. It was probably even inevitable, given the calcified state of moviedom at the moment, that it would end up being told as a traditional epic biopic. But it’s still a little bit of a shame that such a dynamic man who looms so large in the hearts and minds of so many has been packed neatly away into a film that is never more than exactly what you expect it to be: handsome, respectable, and just a tad stodgy. Director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) and screenwriter William Nicholson (Les Misérables) follow an unsurprising path along Mandela’s life, from his work as a lawyer in 1940s Johannesburg, where a black man getting harassed by white cops for no reason other than his skin color is The Way Things Are, through his move away from peaceful protests to more aggressive pushback against the institutionalized racism of apartheid with the ANC’s bombing campaigns of the 1950s and early 1960s. The narrative metronome picks up some energy as the story moves into Mandela’s decades-long imprisonment, which made a martyr out of him even though that’s precisely what the South African government was hoping to avoid. Idris Elba (Thor: The Dark World), as Mandela, is far more potent a presence as a man of philosophy rather than one of physical action, and it’s here, finally, where the film finds something to say: that every act of oppression contains the seeds of the oppressor’s own destruction. Which is a hopeful thought indeed. If only the whole film were as rousing.

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Thu, Nov 28, 2013 12:56pm

If you’re going to hold my interest in a film in this mould, you have to depict the protagonist as human — he’ll have doubts, he’ll make mistakes, he’ll annoy people who are not just cartoon villains but simply people with different opinions. This is what Gandhi largely got right. But I think most filmmakers are too timid to show a national saint as being merely human, and even when they aren’t they don’t usually get the family to allow them access to the good research materials unless they promise to be remorselessly positive.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  RogerBW
Fri, Nov 29, 2013 8:17am

I don’t think we can say this movie depicts Mandela as a saint. (It certainly doesn’t skip over the fact that he cheated on his first wife with Winnie, and basically abandoned the first wife and their kids.) But even that is depicted in a rather passionless way.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Fri, Nov 29, 2013 9:15am

Fair enough — that’s better than the impression I’d got.