Film Review: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

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Who is the man Nelson Mandela? When so much has been written, when a nation holds a passion akin to worship for you, and when you stand constantly against oppression and fight for the freedom of your people, you are no ordinary person. However, Mandela is human. Extraordinary, but human none the less and a film about him must show him as such.

No director could be blamed for becoming caught up in the legacy of Mandela and portraying him with sainthood. Thankfully director Justin Chadwick does not fall into this trap with Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

Based on Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom the film chronicles Mandela’s life. The story arch spans from his coming of age, education, marriages, involvement with the ANC, arrest, twenty-seven years imprisonment and concludes with his presidency.

The scope covered in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is extensive yet it is treated with intimacy and detail. The audience is not left feeling overwhelmed or that important detail were omitted. Chadwick has very thoughtfully considered the events and how best to portray them.

It would be easy for the viewer to find the content oppressive. However the film avoids being this, in spite the graphic portrayal of humanity at its worst, through its excellent pacing. We are taken on a journey through the ebb and flow of Mandela’s emotions. His losses are felt and then small triumphs are celebrated. The soundtrack throughout the film is also emotionally powerful. Transporting us through chant and music through a multitude of emotions.

Idris Elba stars as Mandela and dominates the screen from the moment he appears. Elba beautifully executes Mandela’s mannerisms and postures. Great care has also been taken with his elocution. There was no difficulty believing we were listening to Mandela himself. When portraying Mandela the importance lies in striking the right balance between onscreen hero while still remaining true to the man. Elba achieves this most successfully.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela(Screengrab)

Naomie Harris works alongside Elba in the role of Winnie, Mandela’s wife. Where Elba supplies a measured and tempered performance in keeping with Mandela, Harris brings a passionate, raw and fiery performance to the screen. The chemistry between Harris and Elba is excellent throughout. Both present a marriage believable in all its complexities and struggles.

The two characters, side by side, make a wonderful study of human nature. Both Mandela and Winnie begin their marriage with the same hopes and ideals and both suffer greatly and similarly (Winnie also being imprisoned). The differences in their reactions to the treatment they suffered further emphasises just what a remarkable person Mandela was.

Part of the joy of film is being able to slip into the world of the characters and identify with them. Chadwick skilfully takes us to the streets of South Africa. It is often unpleasant and ugly and we feel despair but it is necessary to our connection with the story. Where Chadwick does this best is in the protest and rally scenes and most potently on Robben Island.

When Mandela steps onto Robben Island we step with him. The unjust treatment, the futility of the labour, the isolation and the coffin-like prison cell are all presented so skilfully as to transport the audience. Cleverly Chadwick also chooses to inform the audience of events from the outside world as Mandela would have been informed. The end result is shocking and jarring.

Mandela’s story is one we may well know but Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom offers much more than historical documentation. The performances are compelling and excellently executed. Elba and Harris excel in the roles of Mandela and Winnie and the support cast are solid. The cinematography is beautiful. This film takes its audience on an emotional excursion while investigating the strength and determination of the human spirit. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is an epic journey well worth embarking upon.


Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is now screening nationwide.


Director: Justin Chadwick
Starring: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris
Distributor: Village Roadshow
Running time: 152 minutes

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