Film Review: Short work of a long walk

29 November 2013 - 02:02 By Tymon Smith
AMBITIOUS: Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela in 'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom', which opens at cinemas today
AMBITIOUS: Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela in 'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom', which opens at cinemas today

Expensive Madiba biopic resorts to gimmicks and myth-making, writes Tymon Smith

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Director:Justin Chadwick

Cast: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Terry Pheto, Jamie Bartlett, Gys de Villiers, Deon Lotz, Carl Beukes

Making a biopic of a man who has been so written about, memorialised and beatified in his lifetime is an unenviable task. It's made even more difficult when the film in question attempts to be the final word on the man's life and has been the most hyped, long-awaited and expensive production in South African history. Now that the film has also received the stamp of approval from the current ANC leadership, the Mandela family and the White House, any criticism of it seems doomed to fall on deaf ears, but criticised it must be.

Too close to its subject, too willing to play to the nation's hysterical embrace of the symbolism and myth-making around Nelson Mandela and too content to let its epic veneer stand in for any kind of real interrogation of the life at its centre, this film fails to be more than a flawed, overly reverential and not particularly engrossing adaptation (with some strong performances) of some of the all too well-known highlights of a fascinating life.

Written by Gladiator screenwriter William Nicholson the film begins with some promise, from its softly hazed scenes of a young man's initiation in the Transkei to his life as a ladies' man-lawyer in the streets of Sophiatown, dealing with the racism of the courts, boxing on Joburg rooftops and trying his best to live the life of a dapper man outside of politics.

Once he's recruited to the ranks of the ANC, things speed up and this "man behind the legend" aspect is quickly overtaken by his placement within historical circumstances as "the legend in his own lifetime", who became a threat to the system and was sent to prison for 27 years.

There is an all too obvious lack of real emotional connection to the specific history and circumstances of South Africa. No matter how well Chadwick may think he understands what South Africa was like there's no way for him to convey a real sense of the feeling of the era, irrespective of how faithfully period details are reproduced. By failing to deal in any significant way with Mandela's politics and refusing to spend any time examining what it was about him that propelled him into such a visible role within the liberation movement, the film does itself an insurmountable disservice.

Obviously, any film that seeks to present a long and incident-filled life needs to make choices about what to leave in and what to exclude, but by conflating facts for its own convenience and allowing hastily concocted montages of images we've all seen a million times to indicate lazily the progress of time the film simply reinforces the hagiographic propaganda of the ANC.

Elba and Harris give their best and create characters who are immensely watchable in their own right but not necessarily the most believable recreations of Nelson and Winnie Mandela.

With his boxer's physique and quiet presence, Elba draws you in despite the obvious differences in appearance and tone to the Mandela we all know. Harris's accent is not quite right but we ignore it easily enough because of the fire she brings to her character, who is given a more morally ambiguous trajectory than her husband.

The film certainly looks as good as any other epic and you can see the money on the screen, but that doesn't help its lack of focus and its determination to fit all the iconic moments into its 150 minutes.

It's easy to see why there's a campaign to have it shown to school kids in the US. It gives you a basic idea of what all the Mandela fuss is about and the broad strokes of his story, without demanding too much of your analytical faculties. It even has a cheesy U2 end-credit song in which Africa's self-appointed saviour and Mandela bestie Bono gets to wax sentimental about love, courage, hope and peace.

If you want to really get to grips with the man though, you can do better by reading the books.

One day someone will make a film that says something new and interesting about Mandela, but this is not that film and it seems a wasted opportunity rather than the fulfilment of a dream. It is also unfortunate that, because of all the power, money and influence behind it, all future films will have to struggle in its undeservedly long shadow.

What others say

Biopioc blight definitely afflicts this respectful, near-canonising look at the life of Nelson Mandela. - Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

This may be a familiar story, but it is one worth experiencing again and again. - Kenneth Turan, LA Times

The restrained intensity of Idris Elba's performance as Nelson Mandela ennobles this ambitiously sprawling biopic. - David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter