I cannot stand an audience who applaud the screen as the credits roll. However, a screening of Justin Chadwick’s glorious biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom proved that occasionally, some films can warrant such reactions.
Based on the autobiography of Nelson Mandela, Mandela catalogues the life of the iconic figure from childhood to presidency with no moment of incomprehensible emotional and physical torment left unconsidered. However, against this struggle the pervading message of Mandela’s resilience and stoic commitment to fairness leaves an aftertaste that is utterly uplifting.
In a season of serious heavyweights for black male leads, Idris Elba, best known as Russell “Stringer” Bell in The Wire and for his leading role in the BBC’s Luther, proves a commanding Mandela who towers over even Morgan Freeman’s iconic interpretation of the South African president in 2009’s Invictus. The true-story narrative is captivating, lubricated by Elba’s wholly believable portrayal, from the gradual aging stoop he develops as the film progresses, to his uncanny imitation of Mandela’s soft, gravelly tones. He is effortless in his transition from cheeky, womanising barrister, to fugitive, to the age-wearied, post-Robben Island Mandela we have come to recognise, maintaining the revolutionary’s steely backbone throughout.
Naomie Harris as Mandela’s second wife, Winnie, is equally enchanting. After Mandela’s release, Harris needs only one devastating look to capture the grief that Winnie feels for the loss of her relationship with Mandela. Harris embodies a woman stuck in a predicament; oozing unhappiness but also total commitment, as if 27 years in waiting have created an indelible bond that ties her irrevocably to her husband.
Visually, Mandela is stunning. Although the golden hues of Mandela’s childhood kraal are inaccurate and rather far from the images of the unspectacular landscape we saw in the recent coverage of Mandela’s funeral, Chadwick should be allowed some cinematic sentimentalism in a film that could otherwise be overwhelmed by the grey of Robben Island and the harsh cacophony of gunfire that permeates the narrative. The running time is long at 146 minutes, but that must not be an excuse to wait until DVD release. This film yearns to be on the big screen, both for the astounding panoramic shots of the South African landscape and close-ups of the subtle expressions in the prosthetic wrinkles of Elba’s ageing face. Although, regrettably the prosthetics aren’t quite there yet; on occasion Elba’s puffy, waxy face feels more Bo Selecta than Madiba.
The film’s limitations come largely from the limits of the form. It is without doubt too great a feat for one feature-length film to do justice to the multiplicity of personas that Mandela adopted throughout his life, nor the many significant milestones accounted for in the 784 page autobiography. Nonetheless, the films succeeds both as an education in the struggles of segregated South Africa and as a testament to Mandela’s personal sacrifice and unwavering spirit. Amongst others, Chadwick’s greatest success lies with his portrayals of atrocities such as the 1960 massacre in Sharpeville, recreating violence that is deeply harrowing but never sensationalised.
Chadwick also seeks to remind us that Mandela was no saint, humanising him through dramatizing moments of adultery and abusive behaviour to his first wife. The result is a more tangible Mandela, as we see that the successes of his political life weigh intolerably onto his private. Despite the constant trials, the clenched fist of determination presides as a dominating symbol; one of resilience and empowerment. Yet it is when Mandela chooses to relax his clenched fist into a new movement of forgiveness, but Winnie keeps hers firm, that the true division in the partnership is revealed and the audience understands that their differences are irreconcilable. Elba and Harris capture this effortlessly, carrying the film with commanding performances that are sure to be defining moments of their careers.
For spectacular landscapes, performances of a lifetime and a crash course in the human cost of Mandela’s struggle against apartheid, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is an unmissable epic. Go and see it, before you know it this “long” walk to freedom will have flown by, and you might just find yourself on your feet like me, cheering with the rest of them.
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is in cinemas now