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British Film Review - Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom
Film makers have long been fascinated with Nelson Mandela. Actors of the calibre of Sidney Poitier, Dennis Haysbert and David Harewood have all played the role, either on TV or the big screen, but the one everybody seems to remember is Morgan Freeman as the South African president in 'Invictus'. And in that he plays second fiddle to the Rugby World Cup. So 'Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom' comes complete with expectations – and these have, inevitably, become even more heightened since the statesman’s death.
Based on the autobiography of the same name, Justin Chadwick’s film has the added authority of approval from the family, Winnie included. It traces Mandela’s life, taking him from a rural village to township lawyer, political activist, long-term prisoner and, ultimately, the first democratically elected President of South Africa. It’s a personal story on an epic scale, one that Mandela handed to the film makers with the instruction not to contact him until the movie had been made.
That process has taken some 17 years, including more versions of the script than award-winning screenwriter William Nicholson can probably remember. Directors have come and gone, as have contenders for the title role, with much of the interest in the film now surrounding the eventual choice, Idris Elba.
Does he cut it? Simply, yes. With a lesser actor in the part, the film would have yet another challenge – and it already has enough. He carries the story on his substantial shoulders, showing us the younger, sharp-suited lawyer with an eye for the ladies, the prisoner who can turn his seemingly hopeless situation to his advantage and, ultimately, the elder statesman steering his country to democracy. And, while it’s a performance , not an impression, it has to be said that he totally nails Mandela’s distinctive voice.
So, to those challenges – and they all stem from the story. It is, simply, just too big for one film, even if it is just short of two and half hours long. To squeeze it into that timeframe, compromises had to be made left, right and centre, with the inevitable result that some events get the detailed treatment and others are barely sketched in. Characters suffer the same fate, with some not even making the film at all. It all makes for an uneven film.
What director Justin Chadwick and his crew could never have foreseen was the extraordinary coincidence on the night of the Royal premiere. While Mandela was still with us, audiences would have expected something suitably respectful, but after his death they could have expected something closer to reverential. The respect is certainly there. This is a straightforward, honourable bio-pic which, despite its shortcomings, is eminently watchable. And it doesn’t flinch from showing us the less edifying aspects of Mandela’s character as a young man, when his first marriage descends into violence.
There will, inevitably, be more films about Mandela. Hopefully, some will concentrate on specific periods of his life, providing more detail and depth than this one is allowed to. A director’s cut or extended version of 'Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom' would be welcome if it helped to fill in some of the gaps so obvious on the screen. For the time being, however, we have to content ourselves with a film that has a powerful piece of acting at its core and that was made with good intentions – but took on more than it could handle.
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is released Friday 3rd January 2014
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