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Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

| November 25, 2013 | 0 Comments

It may no longer be possible to make a successful biopic that captures the entire sweep of a man’s life.  Gone are the days of sweeping epics about larger-than-life leaders like Lawrence of Arabia or Gandhi or even Malcolm X.  In our information age, it may no longer be possible to make a grand womb-to-tomb epic about a singular life – these days we know so much about the historical figures through just researching them on the internet that our focus falls on the details, not the big picture.

Recently, the most successful biopics like “Lincoln”, “Capote” and “Elizabeth” do themselves a service by choosing one piece of the subject’s life and spotlighting it so that we can zero in on one aspect of their greatness.  That might have helped in the case of “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” which has a title more accurate then the filmmakers probably realized.  Here is a movie that doesn’t focus on one aspect of Mandela’s life, but attempts to cull the entire scope of his life from his birth up through the current day.  In that, the movie is an exhausting experience.  It is long, it feels long, and it runs long.  Worse, it comes up short on letting us into the private heart of Nelson Mandela.  Here is a film that attempts to cram every single piece of the great leader’s life inside the limited space of 139 minutes, and has a chaotic narrative that often feels like red letter highlights.

Here’s an example: the movie opens with a very short monologue that breezes through Mandela’s birth and childhood and then quickly drops us into his young adulthood in which young Mandela is off to Johannesburg in the 1940s where he uses his newly acquired skills as a lawyer to represent Africa’s repressed black majority.  Then the movie whisks us along to his involvement in the anti-apartheid rebellion years later where he is arrested and given a life sentence.  These scenes take place in a very short amount of time.  There is no time to establish anything or get a foothold in the man’s internal struggle.  The supporting players are brushed along so quickly that we wonder why they were introduced in the first place.  Mandela’s first marriage is featured as a footnote that is pushed through so quickly that it could have filled a commercial break.  The same goes for the early days of his relationship with Winnie.

The film’s virtue is a strong performance by Idris Elba in the title role.  He’s a good actor whose best attribute is that we can see him thinking.  He’s not just reacting or waiting for the next line.  He is a focused actor with a good screen presence.  He’s especially good in the early scenes as an angry young man who mellows as he grows older.  The connection between Nelson and Winnie is palpable, but there is something of a lost opportunity in their relationship.  In prison, Nelson’s hatred for the white man dims while at the same time Winnie goes to jail for her own crimes where her anger gets worse and worse.  That dynamic threatens to pull them apart, and here is where the movie should have found its dramatic center.  But Chadwick moves quickly through that struggle in order to show the older post-prison Mandela building a political career.  Mandela’s years in prison are effective, giving us the feeling of the long passage of time away from the rest of the world.

That struggle should have been the heart of the movie, not the cumbersome details of Mandela’s entire tenure on Earth thus far.  “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” was directed by Justin Chadwick who also made “The Other Boleyn Girl” another lackluster historical epic, which dealt with two women vying of the affections of King Henry VIII.  With that film, as with this one, you are left with the feeling that he doesn’t know how to tell a story with any real power.  He’s got the clothes right, but he misses the drama.  With both films, he drags out historical figures, but never lets us understand what made them worth telling a story about in the first place.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2013) View IMDB Filed in: Drama, Uncategorized