Terrific acting aside, director Justin Chadwick's new film, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, is laborious to watch, as if it were a take-home assignment for a college course in African studies. The film feels more like an academic biopic you should watch, rather than a Hollywood hit you choose to watch.
Idris Elba stars as Mandela, the South African anti-Apartheid activist who spent nearly three decades behind bars before his release and rise to power as the nation's first elected black leader. The burly Elba does not resemble Mandela in stature or in face, but his steely gaze, distinctive accent and steadfast determinism, are uncannily similar. What is more, Elba navigates Mandela's incredibly harrowing journey with guts and grace, never losing sight of "Madiba," the man behind the martyr.
The film fails in its attempt to cover too much ground in 139 minutes. Much of the movie's second half is consumed by Mandela's time on Robben Island, leaving little room for Chadwick to adequately delve into Mandela's family life or into the romantic and political relationships he had with his second wife, Winnie (played by a fiery Naomie Harris).
Then, of course, there is the issue of the film glossing over the hows and whys surrounding South Africa's political transformation, from its brutal police-state — where non-white citizens were denied even their most basic human rights — to a democracy where a black man could emerge as president. And where was the rest of the world as South Africa fought its discriminatory demons? The film's complete lack of global grounding is unsettling.
Chadwick would have fared better to tackle far less and to compartmentalize the various facets of Mandela's life, but even amidst the chaos there are nuggets of gold. The gripping scenes when Mandela sees his grown daughter for the first time or offers his wounded nation the opportunity to heal and move forward give the film a dose of much needed depth.
So, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom attempts far too much and as a result it barely skims the surface of Nelson Mandela's extraordinary life and political expedition. Nevertheless, it's still an assignment you'll get something out of. — Alaina McConnell