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Cinema Scope

Homage to Mandela

25th Jan 2014


Director: Justin Chadwick

Starring: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris and others

From reading Mandela's autobiography 11 years ago, I still remember one incident as having changed the dapper lawyer's life. He witnessed a friend being assaulted by the police for no crime other than being disoriented, and being Black. The turning point in Mandela's life is shown in a tiny little montage in a film ,which is essentially a tribute to the leader's long stay in jail. That's one of the many things the film gets wrong.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom had plenty of potential. Mandela's autobiography is somewhat jaunty, but intense in parts. Idris Elba is an excellent actor, and to hear his impassioned speeches is to be instantly reminded of Mandela's oratory skill. But a biopic can be undermined by episodic narration, and that's what happens here. Look, Nelson-the-youngster, the film seems to say. Here's our humanising ploy — look, he has affairs. Look, Nelson-the-emerging-leader. Look, Nelson-the-firebrand. Look, here's Nelson-the-peacenik. Look, here's Nelson-the-freed-old-man. Look, here's Madiba-the-President.

One of the most interesting parts of the autobiography is Mandela's slow morphing from ambitious lawyer to radical demonstrator to violent agitator to proponent of non-violence. Despite its two-and-a-half-hour duration, the film makes no time for this. It would have been far more interesting if the director had chosen to focus on the psychological effect of all those years in jail, in an isolated cell in a remote island from which no one thought he would emerge alive, let alone emerge to become one of the world's most respected and honoured statesmen. What made a man who was ready to die at his trial patient enough to see his sentence through, and eventually take over the Presidency of the country which sent him into exile?

In tracing Mandela's and Winnie's marriage, the film falls back on the regular woman-behind-successful-man template. Right, we know there's a long-suffering wife. But the idea is so hackneyed that despite the two actors doing very well with their roles, their scenes together don't really move us.

I can't say the film is terrible. Idris Elba is outstanding, and his expressions gave me gooseflesh even more often than his stirring words did. But it falls short of what it could have been.

The Verdict: An awed homage to a man who was, at the time, dying.

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