On December 5, 2013 in South Africa, the world lost one of its most reverend leaders, Nelson Mandela. On that day, the film, based on the 1994 autobiography of the same name, ‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’ was being shown in a London premiere where many had gathered to honor his legacy. Directed by Justin Chadwick (‘The First Grader’, ‘The Other Boleyn Girl,’ and ‘Bleak House’) the motion picture stands as a tribute to the inspirational life of Nelson Mandela.
The film spans Mandela’s exceptional journey from his early years as a herd boy in South Africa’s rural Cape region, to his days as a lawyer, and Apartheid resistance leader, and on to his twenty-seven years spent in Robben Island prison before becoming the nation’s first democratically elected President.
Acclaimed actor Idris Elba (‘The Wire’, ‘Luther,’ ‘Pacific Rim,’ and ‘Thor’) stars, with Naomie Harris (‘The First Grader,’ ‘Skyfall.’) playing the role of his wife Winnie Mandela, with whom he shared a passionate and troubled love affair that endured over decades.
A stellar South African supporting cast is headlined by Tony Kgoroge (‘Invictus’) Riaad Moosa (‘Material), Fana Mokoena (‘World War Z,’ ‘Machine Gun Preacher’), Jamie Bartlett (‘Beyond Borders’), Deon Lotz (‘Sleeper’s Wake’), Simo Mogwaza (‘District 9’), Terry Pheto (‘Tsotsi’), Thapelo Mokoena (‘Nothing for Mahala’), and Praise Singer and Poet of the Nation, Zolani Mkiva.
Although Idris Elba is an accomplished actor, I must admit that I was unsure that he could effectively portray the multi-faceted Nelson Mandela. But true to form, Elba turns in a spectacular performance.
South Africa has a broad spectrum of accents within 11 official languages. With the aid of dialogue coach Fiona Ramsey, Elba is able to lose his London cockney accent, and become familiar with Mandela’s famous enunciation. The transformation is complete when Elba adapts his clipped gait and jaunty walk to that of the South African leader. He completely immerses himself into this role. The result is astounding. He captures the spirit of the man. This result is achieved through the use of significant prosthetic work by Make-Up Designer, Meg Tanner, and her outstanding team who aged several of the main characters including Mandela, his fellow prisoners and Winnie over a 40-year period.
In contrast, Naomie Harris (Winnie Mandela) seems to flounder next to her notable co-star. In scenes created to detail their earlier days, she is able to hold her own with loving eyes and fiery inspiration. However, as the film progresses, she is unable to deliver the nuisance of the controversial older Winnie. It is as if the complexities of the more mature woman are out of her reach. Despite, age progression make-up, she is unable to effectively change into the older character.
The film provides an insight into Nelson Mandela’s earlier life and his extraordinary journey to liberate South Africa from the system of Apartheid. It is a true testimony to his legacy.
Filled with rich history, the audience is transported back into a time of turmoil and strife. During the time when a country that is ninety-five percent black is ruled by a five-percent oppressive population. Like the American natives, families are divided and forced to move to less desirable areas. One can only speculate why this systems was allowed to remain in modern times. Yet, the movie does not shy away from the inhumanity of this political practice. Events taken from actual accounts serve as reminders of this atrocity carried out on a nation.
It is hard to adequately tell the story of a well known figure as large as Nelson Mandela. An honest depiction includes his failures (his first marriage) and his triumphs (release from prison and the ability to forgive). But, his long life was filled with many insightful and interesting events. Chadwick effectively uses William Nicholson’s screenplay to successfully provide the motivating aspects of his life without them becoming a litany of details. ‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’ is a fitting tribute to the exceptionally insightful and brilliant leader who sacrificed and worked to unite a country and free a nation.