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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 27 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 52
Elba helps make Mandela a walk worth taking
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Elba helps make Mandela a walk worth taking

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM
Now playing


In some ways, it is surprising that it has taken someone so long to adapt Nelson Mandela's 1994 autobiography for the big screen. In other ways, with recent events being what they have been, it just seems right that the movie version, directed by Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl), with a screenplay by William Nicholson (Shadowlands, Gladiator), is hitting screens now. With the passing of the South African leader, looking back on the events that transformed him into one of the 20th century's most indelible and important icons, feels akin to essential, a complex man of this magnitude deserving every bit of examination and appreciation we can bestow on him.

With that being so, reviewing Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is something of a difficult proposition.

It's impossible to look at the film outside of recent events, hard to let it work on its own and not have reactions colored by what has transpired. Watching it, I admit to having moments of trouble severing my personal opinions and respect for the man from the movie made about the first two-thirds of his life, forcing me to watch it twice in order to make sure my judgments weren't being clouded by external factors.

What conclusions have I come to in regards to the subsequent motion picture?

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a good movie. It is not, sad to say, a great one. And that's okay, Chadwick and Nicholson putting together a fetching bio pic that goes from points A to B to C with relative ease. Better, it's extremely well-acted by stars Idris Elba and Naomie Harris, the former, in particular, dominating the proceedings with a suitably commanding performance that is as complex as it is larger than life.

The central crux follows Mandela's (Elba) path from small-time lawyer, to leader in the African National Congress, to prisoner on Robben Island, to his release 26 years later to see Apartheid end and his own election as South Africa's Prime Minister.

It depicts his first marriage as it comes apart at the seams, his striving for peaceful resistance but his refusal to rule out violence, and his romance and marriage to Winnie Madikizela (Harris), leading to their eventual disagreements on how best to proceed with their political efforts after his release from prison. The film covers as many events in Mandela's life as it can cram into 140 or so minutes, giving many of them as much emphasis as they can, while others get noticeably shorter shrift that can undeniably perplex.

The film is extremely professionally composed and put together, the filmmakers following a relatively old school template, echoing in many ways Richard Attenborough's Gandhi, which isn't even close to being a bad thing in and of itself. But there comes a point where this can feel more like historical Cliff's Notes than it does an actual in-depth discussion and dissection of an extremely complicated man's life in the public eye. Everything just seems to happen a lot of the time, things moving from one event to the next with relative matter-of-fact simplicity, trying so hard to maintain an observational distance so that the inherent dramatics of each situation are sadly muted in the process.

But Elba is so dang good, delivering an intricate, effectively nuanced portrait of Mandela that's continually compelling. He fearlessly doesn't allow him to become a saint, making sure to portray his flaws and positive attributes in equal light, allowing him to become more of a titanic heroic figure in the process. There are points where I felt I was really getting to know Mandela in ways I never could have dreamt of beforehand, while certain scenes struck me silent with their powerful emotional content. Elba handles everything thrown his way with ease, slipping into the well-known world leader's visage with fascinating ease.

The sequences in Robben Island arguably work the best, and I loved how Chadwick and Nicholson augment things of apparently little import only to subtly allow them to grow and blossom into moments of great power and magnitude. The sense of isolation, a feeling of being ripped out of the world and placed in the middle of a corrosive, inhuman desert, is omnipresent at every turn during this part of the film, so by the time Mandela's daughter visits for the first time as a teenager, the effect it had upon me was shattering.

I'm not sure what to add. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a handsome picture, made with obvious passion and care by those both behind and in front of the camera. But it never comes alive with the same fiery, charismatic intensity of the man whose story it is attempting to tell, keeping me at something of an emotional distance for most of its running time. Yet Elba is magnificent, and the inherent power of Mandela's story is undeniable, so while this biography is never all it could have been, what it actually is ends up being thankfully enough.

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