How's that for timing? British director Justin Chadwick steps up to make a cradle-to-grave biopic about Nelson Mandela, with heavy consultation from Mandela's contemporaries, his family, and even the man himself. And Mandela never got to see the finished product. Mandela died on December 5th of 2013, mere days after the film's premiere in South Africa. The U.S. wide release came on Christmas, while the world was still mourning the loss of this influential man.
Of course, it goes without saying that the death of Mandela raised the profile of his biopic to a considerable degree. In fact, if you ask Nikki Finke, the movie's bolstered chances at a few Oscar nods are all that matters about Mandela's passing. But I digress.
Not to sound insensitive, but Mandela's heyday was long before my time, and I was barely out of diapers when his life imprisonment was prematurely ended. I had little prior knowledge or emotional investment regarding Mandela, and I was certainly not the only one. As such, I was quite interested to see how Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom would introduce the figure to a new generation of filmgoers. And it didn't quite go the way that I expected.
Pretty much immediately, the pacing threw me off. I realize that compressing over seventy years of life into two hours' runtime is a losing proposition, but this film seemed determined to blow through it all at an alarming pace. To wit: We watch as Mandela (here played by Idris Elba) meets, courts, and marries his first wife (Evelyn Mase, played by Terry Pheto), they have kids, they fight, they divorce, then Mandela meets, courts, and gets married to his second wife (Winnie Madikizela, played by Naomie Harris), and we're HALF AN HOUR IN.
The film doesn't slow down until the hour mark, when Mandela and his compatriots are sentenced to life in prison. This means that half the movie is devoted to Mandela's 27 years behind bars. At first, this seemed like a very unwise move. I mean, 27 years is a huge part of anyone's life, and of course the film had to address it. On the other hand, it's not like Mandela did much to change the world while he was in prison.
I went into this movie expecting to see how Mandela affected Apartheid, South Africa, and the world. But at some point in Mandela's prison stay, I realized that the filmmakers were more interested in showing things the other way around.
While Mandela is prison, he hears about his mother's fatal illness and his son's death in a car accident. His wife is repeatedly getting arrested for disturbing the peace, and his daughters are growing up without him. Mandela is positively heartbroken to be missing out on so much while he's in prison, but that's the choice he made. Hell, he had already lost a marriage and his first set of kids when he started railing against Apartheid.
The point being that the film puts its dramatic focus on how Mandela is affected by his own efforts. We see the sacrifices that he makes while fighting for a free and equal South Africa, and we see how those sacrifices are painful, even if they're freely and proudly made. The result is that it peers into Mandela's heart and mind, making an effort to show the man behind the legend.
Though the goal is certainly an admirable one, the film's uneven pacing does come back to bite it in the third act. By this point, Mandela is the de facto leader of the native African population. Mandela even says it in those exact words, "I am your leader." Yet going by the film, he hadn't earned that. The first half of the film showed Mandela making speeches and setting off bombs, but it stopped just shy of explaining why he was so revered above and beyond all the others who were causing mayhem right along with him.
Anyway, there are some aspects about this film that deserve nothing but praise. First and foremost is Idris Elba. Even though he was given such a larger-than-life character with so much dramatic meat to gnaw on, Elba still had the unenviable task of portraying such a universally beloved figure. While the man himself was still alive, no less. Still, Elba takes this fantastic material and knocks it out of the park. Elba won't just be Stringer Bell for much longer, and that thought greatly pleases me.
Kudos are also due to Naomie Harris, who plays Mandela's second wife with an incredible fire. Whether she's romancing Mandela, acting against the government with an all-consuming rage, or suffering from a long and degrading prison sentence, Winnie is incredible to watch from start to finish. Elba deserves all the awards buzz he gets, but I hope that the Academy voters don't forget Harris either.
Thirdly, though it takes Chadwick a long time to get there, he nails the tragic effect of civil uprising against Apartheid. The movie features scenes of men, women, and children getting torn apart by the South African military, and they're horrifying for how brief they are. Getting back to my first point, I wish that the film had put a greater focus on the Apartheid and Mandela's effects on it, just so we could get more emotionally potent sequences like those.
Nelson: Long Walk to Freedom is pretty much entirely saved by Idris Elba and Naomie Harris. The two deliver such dynamite performances that it's enough to forgive the uneven pacing and the ill-advised choice to compress Mandela's entire life into a two-hour film. I'll grant that it was a very intriguing portrait of Mandela as a human being, but anyone looking for a greater insight into Apartheid should probably look elsewhere.