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Non-Review Review: Mandela – Long Walk to Freedom

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is very clearly a sentimental life-affirming true story, very clearly pitching itself as an upbeat and hopeful account of one of the most iconic statesmen of our time. A collection of all the “greatest hits” of Mandela’s struggle against oppression and hatred, Mandela is an efficiently calculated piece of cinema. It’s a grand sweeping historical epic that never really pulls back the layers of the character it examines, instead opting (mostly) to film the legend.

And it works. After all, what other world leader in the past half-century can lay claim to such an inspirational narrative? Nelson Mandela’s journey lends itself to this sort of optimistic and inspirational adaptation, and the subject is a comfortable fit for this sort of sweeping life-affirming whirl-wind exploration of Mandela’s personal history.

Courting public opinion...

Courting public opinion…

Sure, there are blemishes. There are a few moments scattered throughout the film when Mandela himself is portrayed as a flawed human being. He cheats on his first wife; although we only see one instance, it’s suggested that this is a frequent occurrence. When he ignores the opinions of his fellow ANC members to meet with representatives of the South African government, there’s just a flash of ego. Similarly, his bold assertion that he knows what his people need better than they do.

Still, these flawed moments are only fleeting. The film never really probes beneath Mandela’s skin. It doesn’t seem at all critical of the man. The documentation of his infidelities seems more like a footnote intended to add personal detail, while those hints at Mandela’s ego turn out to be entirely justified. Mandela was right to ignore the decision reached by his comrades, just as he was right to presume that he knew better than an entire generation of young South Africans desperately seeking some form of revenge.

Reading the signs...

Reading the signs…

Instead, Mandela spends most of the movie as an iconic figure. He occupies the centre of the narrative, and yet remains curiously removed. He offers familiar philosophical sentiments, and experiences all the traumas that unfolded during Mandela’s life. At the same time, we never peer too far beneath the exterior. This is very much the myth of Mandela as it has built up over the years, offering snapshot glimpses of the man who ended apartheid and made massive steps toward integrating South Africa.

In fact, what’s really striking about Mandela is that it feels decidedly old-school in its approach. Modern biographical films tend to favour a more intimate and personal approach – focusing on a single incident rather than an expansive career. The King’s Speech is just a snapshot of King George V. Frost/Nixon is built around a single set of interviews. Rush is about a rivalry building to a single moment early in the career of its lead characters.

Flag-waving fun...

Flag-waving fun…

Mandela has himself been the subject of a number of these smaller-scale films. Clint Eastwood’s Invictus was about Mandela’s investment in the national rugby team as he tried to rebuild the nation. Goodbye Banafa was a glimpse of Mandela’s years in prison on Robben Island and the unconventional bond he formed with one of his guards there. In contrast, Mandela‘s approach to its subject is much more expansive. It follows the leader from his childhood through to his ascension to public office.

It’s an ambitious approach, and the wider scope leads to a loss in focus. However, Mandela’s life lends itself more comfortably to this approach than Margaret Thatcher’s did in The Iron Lady recently. Mandela’s life is a lot less divisive and contentious than Thatcher’s, so it’s a lot easier to fit everything in without glossing over potentially problematic aspects. Mandela is unashamedly (and deservedly) enthusiastic about its subject, and that lends the bio-pic an endearing charm that carries it surprisingly far.

A more incisive movie would have been a hard cell...

A more incisive movie would have been a hard cell…

At points, Mandela feels like it’s rushing to recite as much of the familiar narrative about Mandela as possible in the time allotted. It barely succeeds, running a little over two hours and still feeling like it barely brushes up against Mandela.  The man who began life as a lawyer before being drawn to the anti-apartheid movement. The terrorist who came to reject violence, recognising that peace must be built on mutual respect and reconciliation rather than fear and hatred.

There are points where the film feels a little too trite, like it’s playing a little bit too heavily into legend. Idris Elba gives a wonderful lead performance, but he spends the second half of the film burdened with prosthetics designed to make him resemble the public image of Mandela. Elba doesn’t look that much like Mandela, but that’s never really a problem if the performance is sturdy enough. Neither Hopkins nor Langella look that that much like Richard Nixon, but their performances are outstanding.

You can't Winnie 'em all...

You can’t Winnie ’em all…

Elba does a wonderful vocal impersonation of Mandela, and has a keen grasp of his subject’s body language. The forty-one-year-old plays a surprisingly convincing seventy-year-old Mandela. The problem is that the movie doesn’t seem to trust Elba’s performance. While the earlier sequences allow Elba to act with minimalist (but effective) make-up, the later sequences threaten to smother Elba’s performance beneath latex.

Naomie Harris also gives a great performance as Winnie Mandela, even if the bio-pic seems satisfied to reduce the character to a familiar archetype. Harris channels Winnie’s outrage and anger very well, lending the under-written part considerable gravitas. If Harris had stronger material to work with, the film would really soar. As it stands, she’s stuck delivering an impressive performance of a two-dimensional character.

Life's no picnic...

Life’s no picnic…

Mandela is trite and overly-sentimental. Those looking for insight into one of the most influential statesmen of our times would be better served to look elsewhere. Mandela works best as an attempt to adapt the popular narrative around Mandela, a collection of scenes and anecdotes that denote important historical events without any attempt to pry beneath the surface. That said, Mandela is a character who lends himself to this approach.

He’s a beloved icon whose story has influenced millions, and who managed the almost impossible task of introducing something approaching functional democracy to South Africa. An overly critical or incisive biographical film was unlikely to ever emerge, and Mandela is a character who is loved enough that this never really poses a problem. Sometimes it is enough to film the legend.

4 Responses

  1. Great review. But I always get annoyed that Winnie does not get credit for making Mandela leader. Without her – flawed as she is – Tambo or Sisulu should have been ANC leader and president.

    • Yep. The film is hardly nuanced in her portrayal. It’s not an out-and-out character assassination piece – it explains how she ended up so angry and corrupt in standard pop psychology terms – but she suffers from being a complex character forced into two dimensions.

      In contrast, Mandela himself is already an icon, so he slots into the film’s structure with a lot more ease.

  2. Interesting. Glad it was a mostly positive experience for me. Hopefully when I finally see it, it will be one for me as well. Hopefully.

    • Hopefully. It’s a flawed film. A very flawed film.

      At the same time, it feels like a conscious throwback to old-style epic biography films, and if there’s any subject who can get away with this sort of cursory examination and mythic reinforcement, it’s Mandela.

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