Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom stars Idris Elba as the iconic Nelson Mandela and Naomie Harris as his wife, Winnie. The film is billed as covering his childhood up to the early 90s but really we only have glimpses of his childhood. The film focuses on his life as an adult and the long period where he was imprisoned on Robben Island. The film has been released in a sensitive time after his death but I’m not going to let that influence my judgment.
I actually thought it was really good, and it seems to be overshadowed by 12 Years a Slave (review here) and it’s a shame because this is a wonderful film. I found it entertaining and educational. I’m 28, so while I’ve been aware of some of the history of South Africa and I know vague things about Apartheid but I’ve never really been properly conscious of the details, and to me I’ve only known Nelson Mandela as the President of South Africa so it was an eye-opening experience to see the recent history depicted like this.
Idris Elba gave a very strong performance as Mandela, showing the different facets of his personality. I was a little bit afraid that this film would succumb to hero worship and it would depict the legend rather than the man, but it didn’t shy away from some of his less flattering qualities and I thought it gave an overall balanced portrayal. I do wonder though about some of the specifics, because it does seem like Mandela was the integral figure to what happened, even though he was the leader of an organization. I wonder what would have happened had someone else taken control, whether the same outcome would have been achieved? Naomie Harris was quite good as Winnie Mandela and the picture was almost equally about her as it was Nelson. I liked how it showed the tension between them as their lives developed and how their philosophies changed over the years.
I thought the director did a good job. The film was well-paced and it held my attention over the course of the 2+ hours. It dealt with heavy material but it didn’t feel overly draining and it packed a lot of years into the runtime so it was inevitable that some things were going to be glossed over. As with The Butler this film uses some real life news footage interspersed with the footage created for this film to remind us that this actually happened and there was on moment where the images froze, as if we were watching a photograph, and I thought this was a good stylistic choice. Speak of photos, images of Nelson Mandela were shown in a slideshow as the credits began and I thought that was a nice tribute and a way to remember him.
Overall it was a very entertaining and educational film. I enjoyed it a lot. I think anyone who likes biopics will be interested in this. Idris Elba does a good job of projecting the aura of Mandela and there are a lot of complex issues that are touched on, but they don’t distract from the focus of the film. The only negative, and it’s a minor one, is that while the aging make-up on Elba is fairly good, they didn’t even try with Naomie Harris. She doesn’t look like she ages throughout the film and aside from a few changes in hairstyle she doesn’t look any different from when she first appears to when the film ends. But aside from that it’s a good film and there are some moments where goosebumps will rise on your skin.