Review – ‘Mandela: Long Walk t

Review – ‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’ a flawed yet powerful film

Our affection for Madiba will overlook the flaws in ‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’, our patriotism will fill in the gaps; we’ll forgive the director and lead actors being Brits because this is our story, both traumatic and transcendant, told to the whole world on the big screen.

Review – ‘Mandela: Long Walk t

Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela on Robben Island

As South Africans, we’re emotionally connected to Nelson Mandela’s story; it’s the story of the birth of our democracy and of the history that shaped us all. It’s particularly significant as we reflect on 20 years of freedom and Madiba lies frail and ill in the twilight of his Long Walk.

That’s why after watching Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, my inner patriot is wrestling with my inner critic.

Let’s face it – condensing a 700-page autobiography covering more than 70 years of an extraordinary life into a two-hour feature is a monumental challenge. The finished product is bound to be controversial in terms of what’s included and what is not.

Because of the difficulty in portraying visually what is as much a book about a man’s internal journey to freedom as about his – and his country’s – political journey, this film concentrates on the more dramatic episodes in the last half of the former president’s life, cleverly interspersed with flashbacks to his childhood and early days in Johannesburg.

A stirring soundtrack and some stunning landscape shots – sweeping vistas of Cape Town, Eastern Cape and the Winelands – are bound to give South Africans goosebumps (and make homesick expats weep).

The plot is fast paced and compelling but a tendency to skip years and even decades renders certain scenes more like vignettes. With little time to properly contextualise events or introduce supporting characters, those with only a cursory grasp of SA history may struggle to keep up.

Nelson and Winnie MandelaPresenting a person regarded by many as a living saint in a balanced way poses another difficulty. If you’re looking for a comprehensive, warts and all portrayal of the man, you’ll be somewhat disappointed; this is ‘Madiba: Lite’. Apart from hints at Mandela’s love for the ladies in his youth and a possible propensity for violence, he is goodness personified. But somehow, he deserves that dignity, having been denied it for much of his life.

Idris Elba does a good job in the title role — yet it would take a much longer feature to adequately portray the many facets of Mandela’s character: freedom fighter, father, husband, charismatic statesman and scholar, among others.

Elba’s Mandela is serious and focussed; we don’t see enough of his famous charisma, warmth and sense of humour. His incarceration on Robben Island is portrayed as a fruitless waiting game yet, ever the optimist, he never perceived it this way. I would have liked to see more of what he accomplished in jail, such as mentoring younger prisoners and pursuing further study.

Although her South African accent slips at times, Naomie Harris is the surprising star of the film. She deftly characterises Winnie Mandela’s transformation from sweet yet determined young woman to angry militaristic activist, a chilling contrast to her husband who uses his years in prison to confront his demons and move past his bitterness. Harris brings such passion to the role that by the time she hardens, we are already on her side.

In the character of Winnie here too is the problem of presenting anything other than a positive portrayal of a living person, especially one who is a consultant on the film itself (unlike the Darrell Roodt-directed Winnie, into which Madikizela-Mandela is said to have been denied input). Although Long Walk to Freedom hints at the sinister activites of Winnie’s ‘Mandela United Football Club’, she is not directly implicated in the kidnap and murder of 14-year old ANC activist Stompie Sepei, for which she was convicted but always denied.

Nelson Mandela’s pain at being unable to watch his children grow up is a poignant reminder of the hardships he and others endured while I was growing up, safe and oblivious in my suburban bubble.

This is an intimate portrait of a dislocated family, symbolic of the millions of families torn apart in the struggle. We see Winnie jailed on several occasions for her activism and wonder how their daughters coped without parents during this difficult time.

The love story between Nelson and Winnie, although not the main focus of the original book, is one of the most engrossing aspects of this film and this theme of the conflict between family and country could have been developed even further into the film’s central narrative.

Naomie Harris as Winnie MandelaWhile Mandela’s autobiography gives credit to the other players in the struggle, this film almost gives the impression that he was solely responsible for ending apartheid. With precious little time to develop the supporting characters of Mandela’s fellow Rivonia Trial prisoners beyond brief sketches, even the great Walter Sisulu is reduced to just a few lines of dialogue.

At the same time, the movie reminds us how crucial Mandela was in the fragile process of dismantling apartheid. Had Mandela not sacrificed the personal for the political, his marriage may have lasted but the country may not have benefitted from his leadership.

Had anyone other than FW de Klerk come into power and anyone other than Mandela been given the opportunity for dialogue with the SA government, it may have taken many more years of bloodshed to become a democracy.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom has its weaknesses but I have a feeling that, much like cult Rodriguez documentary Searching for Sugar Man, it will be well received both internationally and on home soil.

20 years of freedom is really not very long. Some wounds are still very tender and healing for some comes through revisiting, not ignoring the past. For many South Africans this film will be cathartic.

Our affection for Madiba will overlook the flaws, our patriotism will fill in the gaps; we’ll forgive the director and lead actors being Brits because this is our traumatic, turbulent and transcendant story, exposed to the whole world on the big screen.

I for one, found it incredibly moving, perhaps because in a film about my own history, I glimpsed a little part of myself.

Mandela : Long Walk to Freedom is released in South Africa on 29 Nov 2013 and in the UK on 3 Jan 2014.

Read our other review: Elba embodies Mandela in this action packed, absorbing drama