Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, film review - 'Idris Elba's performance is stirring'

3.00

A moving but very uneven journey

The biopic is the most rigid of genres. There is something inherently reductive and unsatisfactory about turning the life of a notable figure into a chronological, two-and-a-half hour drama.

Justin Chadwick's film about Nelson Mandela tries to capture its subject's yearnings and regrets rather than just portraying him as the visionary and magnanimous "great man of history" who guided South Africa out of the apartheid era. Even so, the sense of boxes being ticked, key events covered, is never quite overcome.

Long Walk to Freedom begins very movingly with Mandela (Idris Elba) describing in voice-over a recurring dream he has of his happy childhood home. Like the elderly professor in Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries, he is conjuring up memories of a time long gone when "the child ran free."

British screenwriter William Nicholson (who also wrote Shadowlands) attempts throughout to balance the sweeping historical drama with an intimate study of a man who suffered acute emotional loss. Arguably, the strongest part of the film is that dealing with Mandela's marriage to Winnie (the excellent Naomie Harris). When they first meet, he rhapsodises over her beauty. He is utterly devoted to her.

The film-makers don't skimp from showing how the marriage disintegrated during Mandela's captivity. Whereas he was eventually prepared to negotiate with the white apartheid Government, she felt an utter hatred for them and an understandable determination to use violence to bring it down. Chadwick includes harrowing scenes of her own imprisonment and her many months in solitary confinement. He also shows her supporters "necklacing" a suspected informer – that's to say, placing a rubber tyre round the victim's neck and then setting fire to it. "What they have done to my wife is their only victory over me," Mandela declares at one point.

The film shows Mandela beginning his career as a young lawyer and activist within the ANC. The white legal establishment refuse to deal with him in an even-handed way. This is still a society in which a black lawyer is referred to as "boy". Mandela's political consciousness is fast rising, but he is a womaniser and neglectful father. His first wife, Evelyn (Terry Pheto), is exasperated by his behaviour.

It is left to Elba to give emotional complexity to a story whose triumphant ending we all know well in advance. Elba's performance is stirring and very effective. He doesn't just capture the gait, voice, mannerisms and self-deprecating humour of an immensely well-known figure, but he shows us a character who is constantly changing. The young Mandela is very different from the sainted figure we encounter in the final reel. He is athletic (continually shown boxing), charismatic, angry and confrontational. He is also a pragmatist in the fight against white supremacy.

The film-makers include his famous statement from the dock at the time of his 1964 sabotage trial (when he talks of his ideal of a "democratic and free society" for which he is prepared to die.) At the same time, they hint at his despair in the early days of his imprisonment on Robben Island when he is separated from his family and seemingly powerless to help them.

Idris Elba and Naomie Harris in 'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom' Idris Elba and Naomie Harris in 'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom'

Nicholson's screenplay foregrounds the campaign that Mandela mounted for black prisoners on the Island to be allowed to wear long trousers. The victory he achieves, although seemingly trivial, has huge symbolic weight. The warders begin to treat the prisoners with more respect. The prisoners are able to stop thinking of themselves as victims.

There is an obvious contrast between Mandela's day-to-day existence during the latter days of his captivity, where we even see him growing tomatoes, and the convulsions in South African society as a whole during the late apartheid era. Chadwick portrays the unrest in predictable fashion, with montages of newsreel material showing fighting on the streets to music from Bob Marley and Public Enemy. There is also the inevitable footage of the Nelson Mandela 70th birthday tribute concert, staged at Wembley in 1988 and broadcast around the world. The other ANC leaders don't all agree with Mandela's decision to enter into negotiations with the apartheid government – but Mandela blithely ignores them.

The film-makers use flashbacks, voice-over, music, archive footage and quickfire editing in a bid to make the chronological storytelling more dynamic. We always know, though, just where the script is taking us. It would have been extremely perverse to make a biopic about Mandela that wasn't reverential.

In the latter stages, a sentimentality creeps in. Mandela's reason for pursuing reconciliation is practical as well as idealistic – a way to avoid a bloody civil war. He has the probity and strength of personality to make such a policy possible. Even so, the scene in which we see him telling his doe-eyed grandchildren not to resort to violence against the whites ("that is what they do to us, we must do better") seems heavy-handed and mawkish.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a very uneven journey. The film is at its most powerful when it is at its most intimate, especially when it is giving us a sense of Mandela's loss – his longing for his childhood and his devastation at his separation from Winnie. The filmmakers, though, are so busy celebrating his achievements that they are reluctant to spend too long asking just what those achievements cost him.

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat