Review: Mandela – Long Walk to Freedom (2014)

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Director: Justin Chadwick
Screenwriter: William Nicholson
Based on Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
Cast: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Zolani Mkiva, Simo Mogwaza, Fana Mokoena & Terry Pheto
Runtime: 139 min // Certificate: 12a

One hates to be a cynic but when the news of Nelson Mandela’s death broke on December 5th of last year, midway through the royal premiere of Long Walk to Freedom, I somehow doubt that the audience’s stunned sorrow was indicative of how the film’s PR team were feeling. I just can’t quite shake the term “Christmas come early” from my mind, not least because the film was no longer in much danger of receiving the critical drubbing it deserved…

Long Walk to Freedom is based on Mandela’s autobiography, which chronicles his student activism, his education, his political beliefs, his incarceration on Robben Island, his 1994 election victory and practically everything in between. Therein lays the problem; even at 140 minutes, it barely manages to scratch the surface of the man’s life, thus it feels much too crude, short and unfocussed. The film is, despite its great intentions, an unwelcome lesson in how to make the extraordinary seem painfully pedestrian. It’s reminiscent of The Iron Lady in that it feels like little more than a cinematic version of someone’s calendar; no opinion or context is ever offered, and though the film might be informative to those with little to no knowledge of Mandela’s life, it handles itself in a very bland and uninspiring way.

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Now, you can love him or hate him but “bland and uninspiring” aren’t exactly high on the list of words to describe Mr Mandela. He was one of the most influential figures of the 20th century and as such it’s a terrible shame to see his incredible life handled so poorly. The film’s chronic lack of nuance and emotion, not to mention passion, are all totally unbefitting of the man, as is its unbridled hero-worship which ignores all of the man’s failings; not least the ones to which he himself has personally admitted. Mandela is depicted as a Messiah, not just an extraordinary man, and though this is undoubtedly how a lot of South Africans see him, I very much doubt that it’s how he saw himself. In public he was, despite his passion for justice, a humble figure who believed in forgiveness and solidarity. In contrast, this film treats him like a God.

This is a problem for two reasons. Firstly, Mandela is put on a pedestal for the film’s entire runtime which, however much I might admire him, I found incredibly grating. Worse still, however, is how little time is devoted to Mandela the man. No matter how much time we spend with him – whether at home, with the ANC or in prison – we never get a real insight into his thoughts or feelings. We know that he’s anti-Apartheid, we know that he misses his family and… well, that’s about it really. We don’t learn anything about Mandela that we didn’t already know. We learn sweet FA about the smaller, more intimate moments about his life and, as such, the film comes across as little more than a dull history lesson.

This problem also affects the film’s erratic pacing. With so much information to cram in, Long Walk to Freedom manages, in one fell swoop, to feel both too short and too long. Crucial moments – such as the Sharpeville massacre and Mandela’s release from prison / 1994 election victory – are given little screen-time because the film persists in moving from one year to the next at a breakneck pace with no care for coherence or context. As a result, the film feels far too broad, not to mention empty. If you want to cover such a vast amount of time, particularly in the life of a man like Mandela, you need to devote more than a couple of hours to telling your story. Yet because everything is handled in such a tedious way, it is also an utter chore to sit through; which makes it feel far too long too…

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One does, however, have to give the film some credit. At the least it is mildly informative, especially when covering Mandela’s pre-prison years, and though Elba’s performance stretches no further than a great impression of Mandela, he’s still a powerful screen presence. I thought Harris phoned it in as Winnie Mandela – which is a shame, as she’s usually a decent actor – but the film pays so little attention to her (other than when she’s being compared to Nelson…) that it doesn’t matter too much. Furthermore, for all of the film’s faults it isn’t necessarily bad. It just feels like a wasted opportunity. There was so much this film could’ve done to separate it from dull biopics like The Iron Lady, but because it was too terrified to ever express anything even resembling an opinion, it just felt like a trip through the man’s Wiki page.

With a man like Mandela, you can’t just take a neutral approach. There are just a handful of people on the planet with no opinion on the man, which makes it all the more amazing that one was chosen to direct this film. It’s not that Long Walk to Freedom isn’t interesting – after all, the battle to end Apartheid is a naturally fascinating bit of history – but that it’s so generic that makes it such a disappointment. Not once did I ever feel like I was watching a film about the most revered man in South African history, which made the entire experience feel a bit redundant.

Long Walk to Freedom isn’t a bad film, it’s just a dull one which – considering the subject matter – is sort of inexcusable.

★★