Nelson Mandela: It is not I, but the government, that should plead guilty.
From Sidney Poitier in MANDELA AND DE KLERK, to Morgan Freeman in INVICTUS, many actors have portrayed the recently departed, South-African President, Nelson Mandela. In Justin Chadwick’s (THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, THE FIRST GRADER) latest film, MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM, Idris Elba is added to the list.
After briefly glossing over Mandela’s childhood, the film introduces us to a young Mandela, struggling as a lawyer in South Africa, during Apartheid times. Frustrated with the politics of his country, Mandela joins the African National Congress, a resistance group that would later become a political party. After becoming the leader of the ANC, Mandela becomes so involved with the group, that his wife at the time feels so neglected that she takes their children and leaves him. A tough Mandela is unfazed by the departure of his family. Mandela and his group continue to protest the government, even blowing up an empty post office at one point. Mandela then meets Winnie (SKYFALL’s Naomie Harris), the first black social worker, and instantly falls in love with her. The two marry and start a family, but due to Mandela’s radical behaviour, he is arrested. After shockingly avoiding the death penalty, Mandela, along with other members of the ANC, is sentenced to life in prison. The remainder of the film chronicles the 27 years Mandela spends in prison, as well as his release.
While the film itself isn’t much to speak of, I cannot ignore Elba’s performance as Mandela. Elba, who is known for performances in HBO’s “The Wire” and last summer’s PACIFIC RIM, gives his most memorable performance yet. This is Elba’s film, as he commands the screen at every moment. Elba has Mandela’s voice, mannerisms, and even often looks the part. He truly embodies Nelson Mandela. The second best thing to Elba’s performance is that of his co-star Harris. Harris has been acting on the big screen for just over ten years, (she actually worked with Chadwick before in THE FIRST GRADER), but only now is she showing us just how talented she really is. Despite how fantastic Elba and Harris are, even they can’t save this unbearably long and dragged out film.
Sure, the story being told in the films spans over 50 years, but does it really need to feel that long? Fresh off of penning the film adaptation of LES MISERABLES, screenwriter, William Nicholson, already HAS experience with tackling longer material. But while LES MIS couldn’t have worked (and it just barely does, as it is) if it was any shorter than its near three hour running time, MANDELA really could have used a good trim.
If I must be forced to watch a long story play out over many years, it had better at least look authentic. The makeup work was at at all authentic. They both play the same characters over a span of 40 years, so heavy aging makeup is obviously required but Elba’s is often just heavily caked on. His makeup is so obvious at times that it’s as if Bette Davis is playing Nelson Mandela in WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? The makeup department must have spent so much time focusing on Elba, that they simply forgot about Harris. Similarly to Oprah Winfrey in LEE DANIEL’S THE BUTLER, Harris’ aging is shown in her hair. Each time Winnie is seen during the second half of the film, she appears to be wearing a different wig. It is so distracting that at one point in the film I started to forget about Mandela’s conflicts and found myself anticipating Winnie’s next hairstyle.
Unfortunately, MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM is another sad example of a mediocre film that cannot be saved by masterful performances. The film feels so painfully slow that audience members may find themselves more focused on their own freedom from watching the movie rather than Mandela’s. And given the timing of the film’s release, with many audience members looking to this film to bring them a little peace of mind on the man they miss, there is bound to be a lot of disappointment out there. In some ways, the title can almost be read as a warning and you’ve now been warned.