It’s tempting to allow the profound sense of loss that greeted the death of Nelson Mandela on December 5, 2013, to fog critical judgement of Justin Chadwick’s worthy biopic.
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is reverential and respectful, adapted from Mandela’s memoirs of the same name by Oscar nominated screenwriter William Nicholson (Gladiator, Shadowlands). There is nothing here to desecrate the memory of the South African statesman, who was a lynchpin in the abolition of apartheid.
Equally, Chadwick’s gallop through 52 years of turmoil doesn’t delve into the minutiae of a flawed human being behind the myth. It’s a handsomely crafted yet emotionally underwhelming skim-read of important historical footnotes. Mandela’s 27-year incarceration, most of it on Robben Island, accounts for around 40 minutes of the earnest picture but feels considerably longer.
The film opens in the Xhosa village of Mandela’s youth with a slow-motion tribal ritual that ushers Nelson into manhood.
We jump forward to 1942 Johannesburg, where Mandela (Idris Elba) is an idealistic lawyer, whose eyes are gradually opened to the harsh reality of an unfair justice system.
He weds nurse Evelyn Mase (Terry Pheto) and they raise a family but the marriage buckles under the strain of his increasing involvement with the African National Congress (ANC).
They divorce in 1958 as Mandela and his ANC brothers stand trial for treason – the same year he meets, courts and marries social worker Winnie Madikizela (Naomie Harris), who passionately believes in his crusade.
“If they want a war, we will give them a war,” Nelson asserts, abandoning his pacifist leanings in the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, which results in the deaths of 69 black protesters.
The ANC begins a sabotage campaign, meeting violence with violence, and Nelson is sentenced to life in prison alongside fellow activists including Walter Sisulu (Tony Kgoroge), Ahmed Kathrada (Riaad Moosa), Raymond Mhlaba (Zolani Mkiva) and Andrew Mlangeni (Simo Mogwaza).
Culminating in Mandela’s release from prison and the 1994 elections, Long Walk To Freedom tips its hat to key facts we already knew.
There is a heart-rending scene of Mandela receiving a telegram informing him of the death of his firstborn son Thembi in a car accident, and iconic scenes of a grey-haired Mandela and Winnie walking hand-in-hand out of Victor Verster prison.
Elba is more physically imposing than his subject but he captures the cadences of Mandela’s speech and delivers rousing calls to arms with aplomb.
Harris is equally impressive as the woman who was wrenched away from her children and suffered physical and emotional abuse to break her spirit.
The 146-minute running is both too brief to summarise Mandela’s entire life and too long to sustain key episodes that Nicholson chooses as his narrative.
We want less and more, and settle for something in between.