How can a movie do a whole life justice? It can't. But Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom certainly tries and like a greatest hits CD, will have you smiling at the bits you know and maybe discovering a few more bits you didn't. Distilling the great man's life down into just over two hours is ambitious but also fails to fully capture the majesty of the man.
The book the film is based on is huge and so it should be, covering an incredible life from being a boy in a small African village to becoming the first African president of South Africa by way of 27 years imprisonment for resisting apartheid.
Mandela is perfectly timed to come out this January. While a London premiere was being held as Mandela died, its release in the New Year will give people a chance to truly celebrate the real life legend before getting stuck into Idris Elba's impersonation in Justin Chadwick's well meaning film. The death of Mandela adds to the poignancy of the film and it will no doubt get a boost at the box office and maybe even in awards season after its larger than life subject has passed away at the impressive age of 95.
Starting with Mandela's days as a lawyer on the side of justice and equality and then moving on to his overtly political struggle as part of the ANC before his imprisonment, Long Walk to Freedom has a huge amount to pack in. It dawdles a little too much over his love life with his first wife and then with Winnie but it is important to see the family man (warts and all) behind the icon. Too much of his early action is skipped over and the film races towards the imprisonment at a momentous pace. Perhaps the balance of love, marriage and political action could have been evened out here before sticking Mandela in a cell and getting to the parts everybody knows. There are plenty of neat touches; the real photos of the Sharpeville massacre that invade the screen, the Malickian moments of Mandela in his village with young love but plenty more come and go too quickly.
How can you show 27 years imprisonment in a film without it becoming boring? Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom flies high here, cutting back and forth between Nelson and Winnie, illuminating his wife's struggle as much as his own. Naomie Harris is electric as Winnie, giving her heart, soul and passion and making her actions completely identifiable. Elba plays the mellowing prisoner with dignity and poise befitting his subject. Again Mandela's continuing struggle to get more rights in prison is curtailed and cut down to a single win over his captors, The make up and hair might age a bit too rapidly but Elba nails the performance of a man moving into his 70s.
Real footage continues to play a part as the film goes on and it is hard not to hope for more. The protests for Mandela's freedom including the Wembley Stadium concert for Mandela's 70th birthday all highlight the growing anti-apartheid movement and the real footage reminds of the very recent history that makes Mandela's story pack such a punch.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom will make you angry, make you cry and even occasionally make you laugh. It is admirable in its attempt to offer a depiction of a legend but no film can come close to the impact that Mandela really had in the world. Until somebody makes a 10 part documentary that can really dissect and exolore Mandela's life, this film will enlighten those who know little of the man, remind others of his greatness and bring audiences together in their grief, their hope and their joy at having lived through the age of such an inspiring legend.
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