Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom

Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom was released just as Mandela’s life ended, a fitting tribute to be sure. There’s no disputing that Nelson Mandela lived a remarkable life, one worthy of an autobiography and indeed a biopic.  What he would have thought of this version is not recorded, though I suspect it would not be an entirely favourable reaction.

I grew up through the years when the cry was Free Nelson Mandela; we boycotted South African goods, protested outside the SA embassy, felt compromised when Paul Simon recorded his beautiful Graceland album with black South African musicians, and deplored the violence of white police and army, but also by black against black.  Meanwhile the right wanted Mandela symbolically hanged as a terrorist.

At that time Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was much-quoted but the views of the great man himself remained behind the doors of his prison cell.  Then there was that glorious time of his release, the period of transition, the election and finally, the ultimate irony, Mandela, inmate and thorny problem for the white minority government for 27 years, became President of the rainbow nation, but still a deeply troubled nation even after the fears of further political bloodshed had receded.

I was in South Africa in 2001, but even then the difficulties faced by Mandela had been but the thin end of a very large wedge.  The solutions would take very many years to resolve, if ever they could be.  But what was evident was that Mandela united all South Africans of every colour and persuasion.  No politician in the modern era has united a nation in the same way Mandela did.  Only he could transcend boundaries and win support from all sides, which in my view is the true test of a statesman above mere politicians.

Getting a biopic of a true statesman right, particularly someone so universally known and, nowadays, loved, is formidably challenging. Where The Hobbit gets made into three 3 hour movies, the director of this epic, Justin Chadwick, is given one movie of just over 2.5 hours to sum up in a nutshell the first 80 years or so of one of modern history’s most charismatic personalities, one who lived more than three lesser mortals combined, in spite of spending 27 of his 95 years behind bars.

Iron Lady gave us a moving and stunningly accurate portrayal of the ageing Thatcher by Meryl Streep, but the politics was more like a comic book and was to those on the left close to a hagiography. Lincoln made for a worthy but stodgy confection. Attenborough had the right idea with Chaplin, capturing the magic of the man as well as his many foibles.

These are but three examples to demonstrate some of the many traps it’s possible to fall into in a dramatisation, but let’s start with casting. Physical resemblance is one aspect but far from the only relevant factor. Frank Langella bore little resemblance to Nixon but his depiction of Nixon the man in Frost/Nixon was a total revelation – but to portray the inner workings of the mind can be taught with difficulty, and in the case of a subject as well known as Mandela it’s all too easy to descend into the murky world of cliché.

Idris Elba is taller, more physically imposing, more imposing, more muscular than even the fitter, younger Mandela – he looks if anything like a young Frank Bruno.  He captures the speech to a tee, but whether he captures the essence of the man as Langella does Nixon or Robert Downey Jr does Chaplin is a moot point.  Over time Elba does acquire something of the Mandela gravitas and wisdom, what the late great Simon Hoggart called “bottom” – the ability to be taken seriously, but in method acting terminology it’s not clear whether the motivation is there to drive the actions. Maybe this is the reason I felt a slight emotional detachment, not quite at one with this Mandela.

That said, while we grow to learn how Mandela becomes of symbolic importance to the apartheid regime and, more importantly, the world, his authoritative dignity leaves you smelling the fear among those ministers interviewing the great man. Mandela senses that no middle solution can suffice – it is freedom or nothing, yet he rewards his captors with compassion and a deep empathy with their plight, including that of the deeply religious chain-smoking FW de Klerk, elected president to transition power to majority rule. Mandela’s stand against the violence inflicted by his own wife’s “Mandela United” corps (Winnie’s bodyguards) against informers by “necklacing” is also recorded.

But some moments are not: yes, part of Mandela’s famous statement to the court is there, but not the hair-raising speech upon his release.  Sharpeville is recorded but the Soweto riots are given minimal screen time.  The editing process much have been tricky, and does leave some questions unanswered.

While this movie does not shirk from the difficult or divisive issues, it feels at times like a tick in the box to say they’ve been mentioned rather than feeling part of a cohesive storyline.  Mandela by numbers?  Taken as a whole it does a fine job of capturing a beautiful country at the height of the cruel oppression of the black majority.

I loved the courtroom scene in the early stages where Mandela was still in a legal practice with Oliver Tambo: a maid is accused of stealing silk undergarments belonging to her employer, a rich white woman.  Mandela holds up an example and asks the woman how the court would know they were hers, to which the woman’s response is “I will not be spoken to like that…” by a black man, someone she would normally refer to as “boy” in spite of his professional legal status.

The cast as a whole does superbly, especially Naomie Harris‘s subtly defined performance as Winnie, rewarded by screen time to explore her contribution to Mandela’s life.  Chadwick also deserves credit for keeping the style of shooting active, including the fashionable wobbly hand-held steadicam shots, a contrast to the largely static tableaux of Lincoln, for example.

In short, there is very much to admire here, without it ever being totally convincing.  Events of a lifetime are dutifully recorded, but Chadwick’s fine effort fails to ignite a transcendent mode, something above and beyond the moments recorded on film.  Yes, the theme is one of the long walk to freedom and to correct the injustices of many generations, but to achieve greatness it needed an undefinable quality, something to demonstrate Mandela’s own transition into greatness.

One final note of praise.  U2 wrote a splendid song for the film, Ordinary Love, which plays over the closing credits.  I’m sure Mandela would have approved.

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