Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Director: Justin Chadwick
Cast: Idris Elba
Biographies have to walk the triangular tightrope between historical accuracy, entertainment value and arthouse appeal. Sometimes, they also have to cater to one rather irresistible demographic — Oscar bait. A good biopic works when it focuses on one of those aspects and really stays honest to the central character’s life. This is where Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom fails because it is a mishmash of all of the above, instead of one really good film.
It was always going to be very hard to make a Nelson Mandela biopic. Mandela had a colossal life and it is practically impossible to capture his life’s achievements in a single movie. And although a two hour twenty minute movie is longer than an average film, it’s still not enough to properly encapsulate the spirit, the struggles, the highs and the lows of the great man. Notwithstanding the fundamental flaw of an inadequate runtime, Long Walk to Freedom never becomes a great or memorable film in any way. It’s disappointing given the clearly passionate people who worked on the film.
The only real achievement of Long Walk to Freedom is Idris Elba, who plays Mandela with magnetic charm and verve. This is a guy who could make the big ‘cancelling the apocalypse’ speech in Pacific Rim believable, so the role of Nelson Mandela would have been a cakewalk for him. The film passes through Mandela’s life like a series of flashes without really focussing on anything, but Elba tries his best to wring out class in every single scene. Ultimately, it becomes an Elba acting showcase more than a Mandela biopic.
To their credit, writer William Nicholson and director Justin Chadwick also try their best to cram in as much content as possible into a single film but the spark and energy just isn’t there. Instead, the film has a tone that is at times saccharine and at most times, so overtly respectful to its protagonist it gets into the way of good storytelling. This was the problem in J Edgar as well, and it’s amplified in this case.
The music-montage style filmmaking works until the point you realise it’s just conveniently hop-skipping through Mandela’s life. There are plenty of flashbacks to tell you about the Mandelas, and some of them are in slow motion with a ham-fisted musical score that is more jarring than inspiring.
That way the film at times caters to only those who’ve followed the former South African president’s life, and suddenly it turns into a project made for those unfamiliar with the man’s life story. It just doesn’t click together in any rousing or notable way. Mandela deserved a better film than this.