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Movie Review: Mandela - Long Walk to Freedom


Nelson Mandela is an extraordinary man, whose life story plays like a political version of The Count of Monte Cristo. He was born into a rural family, educated as a lawyer, discriminated against in his own country, branded a "terrorist" leader, a political prisoner for 27 years, only to be inaugurated as President of South Africa.

His autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, chronicles this incredible journey, which was bound to be adapted to film. Anant Singh's mission to adapt Long Walk to Freedom has been compared to Richard Attenborough's struggle to make Gandhi. Choosing a suitable title character, securing the funding to bring such an epic film to life and getting the timing right was a journey in itself.

Nelson Mandela wasn't fit to attend the Johannesburg premiere, but it's still special to think the man is able to see his story realized on film. Many actors have tried to capture the distinctive character of the man: his mannerisms, his accent, his immense presence and grace. While some have come closer than others, Idris Elba's towering performance will be regarded as the quintessential portrayal of Mandela for now.

He may not have Morgan Freeman's effortless grace, or look like Madiba, facially or physically. However, these "handicaps" make his performance even more impressive, defying the odds to represent the dignity, presence and moral stature of a great leader and a cultural icon. Elba is a British actor, but his roots are in Africa, giving him an inside angle on Mandela's accent and African culture.

Not surprisingly, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom leans heavily on Elba's performance. He's unrecognisable, immersing himself in Mandela's world, which wasn't difficult to do thanks to accurate sets and on-location shooting wherever possible. Spending a day locked in Mandela's cell on Robben Island and walking where Madiba walked must have anchored his performance and resonated on another level for the actor, whose casting might have come as a surprise to some.

"It is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

While Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is primarily Mandela's film, his complex and strained marriage to Winnie Mandela is given enough screen time to have warranted a title like "Nelson & Winnie". Naomie Harris is a fine actress, who worked with director Justin Chadwick on First Grader. While she doesn't quite latch onto the South African accent, her performance is still powerful and she captures the intricacies of an emotionally-damaged mother, wife and woman.

Justin Chadwick's First Grader proved he was able to direct Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. He had a chance to tell a real and inspiring African story, focusing on the relationship between a teacher and her student, who were fighting against the politics of an unforgiving education system, a damaged nation and an unsympathetic society. The director's flair for capturing real moments coupled with the fact that he had worked with several of the cast members before, made him a good choice to direct this important film.

It's a grand and sprawling biopic, one which must have taken its cues from Gandhi, covering decades of a man's life, major events in South Africa's modern history and doing so in a way that makes it feel alive. Chadwick's sense to live the moment must have inspired his leads, whose performances prize emotional resonance over accuracy. This is also the tune of the script, written by Gladiator screenwriter William Nicholson, which attempts to relay an emotional rather than an historically accurate chronicle of Mandela's life.

While the biopic serves as a solid overview, it does feel ambitious, episodic and somewhat rushed, unable to ingratiate the audience in what 27 years in prison must really feel like. The chronicles of Mandela's life have been lovingly recreated, but you can't help but feel that a mini-series format would have suited the production better, making the film seem less punctuated by shouts of "Amandla!" and the derogatory k-word. Idris Elba carries the film, bouncing off a number of minor supporting performances from local actors including: Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa and Gys de Villiers as FW De Klerk. It would have been good to see these characters having more of an impact on the story, instead of simply being reduced to political pawns.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom was screened at the White House for President Barack Obama and fellow dignitaries. The political drama has some interesting tie-ins with The Butler, which touched on activism and international relations with South Africa, during the Reagan administration. While Obama and Mandela's inauguration both signify the dawn of a new age for democracy, the screening event seems like a publicity stunt to reinforce the association rather than serving as a call for governmental integrity.

The film also serves as a challenge to the current South African government, who have come under heavy fire over the years for corruption, lining their pockets and misguided spending. Mandela is great because his was a noble cause for the good of the people. The ANC under President Jacob Zuma, has become regarded as a self-serving regime of fat cats, who do not have the country's best interests at heart.

South African audiences will enjoy Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom for celebrating Mandela's life, providing a broad overview of his journey, giving international recognition to our nation's miraculous transition and hopefully inspiring change. The universal themes of dignity, forgiveness, justice, morality and sacrifice will appeal to international audiences who may not hold a stake in the film's heritage.

It's a living history lesson, one that seeks to educate rather than incite and evoke discussion rather than provoke reaction. This offers some explanation as to why the distributor's have chosen to screen the film to as many high school students as possible in Los Angeles as part of their curriculum.

Perhaps the ultimate compliment is that Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is more than a film, it forms a part of Mandela's lasting legacy, one that will help inspire and shape moral codes for generations to come. By serving his countrymen, Mandela showed how true humility, determination and persistence are in fact weapons of peace.

The bottom line: Immense