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New Mandela Film Falls Short Of Character Development: Movie Review

by Nancy Chan

Film Critic

For a film with the title, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, you’d expect that some time would be taken in telling the story of  Nelson Mandela.  That’s not the case, in the first hour or so of the film.  Director Justin Chadwick keeps a frenetic pace going, and I’m sure this pace serves the subject  of this film biography well.  Given the recent passing of Mr. Mandela, the movie is timely, though it is doubtful that a more complex, well-rounded portrait of the man, rather than the saintly personage depicted in media, can be realized at this close a quarter.   Maybe a period of time and reflection has to elapse before we can see the whole man, with all his imperfections, not just the saintly veneer.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom moves quickly from the opening scene of a young Nelson running carefree through the fields, to an adolescent engaging in tribal rituals on his way to becoming a young man.  Then there are scenes of Mandela studying, lawyering, meeting up with future ANC founders, becoming politicized, meeting Winnie, becoming more radical, vandalizing, getting arrested, and then sent to prison for life.  It’s almost as if the writers of the film went through Mandela’s autobiography, highlighting decisive points in his life with a yellow highlighter, to feature in the movie.

Life has ebbs and flows, slow and quick moments.  I think the film misses the quiet moments, the lulls between the great actions or events, that go a long way to organically showing character development.  Even in the prison sequence, where time must have stood still for Mandela during those 27 long years, we get an abbreviated version of his experience.  We see Nelson go in as a relatively young man who is ill-treated by the prison guards, in a few short scenes later he is grey and referred to as an old man.  He appears to have developed a good friendship with one guard in particular.  How, why?  It seems the filmmakers missed some choice opportunities .   One longs for some slow moments, some way to understand how Mandela managed those slow long middle years in prison without succumbing to hatred or morosity.

Idris Elba as Mandela is fine, he has captured the rhythm of the man, his voice, his manner of addressing the crowd, his stateliness.  Naomi Harris does well too, exhibiting the emotional arc and maturity growth as a young and winsome Winnie Madikezela who becomes Nelson’s second wife and increasingly radicalized and embittered by the South African state’s treatment of Mandela and her family.   

 The depiction of Johannesburg and the townships where much of the violence there became a flashpoint for both supporters and opposers of apartheid comes across generally, though I wonder whether anyone can ever really capture in a film the chaos, the heat, the smells, the panic, the sense of standing on a knife’s edge of insecurity for those living as an underclass, without really having gone through the experience?


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