November 11, 2013

AFI FEST Film Review: “Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom”


MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM:  Watch It At Home – More Like a Trudge

The movies haven’t figured out what to do with Idris Elba.  The powerful, fiery actor has been spectacular on TV, first on The Wire and more recently on Luther, and he’s kicked around as a supporting player in some big-budget movies like Prometheus, Pacific Rim and both Thors, but he has yet to find his signature big-screen moment.

MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM should have given Elba his breakout role, but this pedestrian biography of Nelson Mandela and the fight against apartheid is never on his level.  The film, which screened at the AFI Film Festival before beginning its run in theaters later this month, comes from filmmakers with a track record of cinematic politeness; director Justin Chadwick was behind the camera on The Other Boleyn Girl and the BBC’s Bleak House, while screenwriter William Nicholson wrote Shadowlands, about the dying poet Joy Gresham and her romance with C. S. Lewis, and also handled the screen adaptation of Les Miserables.  Together, they’re far too genteel.

Part of the problem is that covering 50+ years of Mandela’s life may be too much for a single movie, even one 145 minutes long.  Trying to hit every high point of Mandela’s story, Long Walk is like an epic “Previously On…” montage at the start of a TV episode, jumping with one brief scene after another from Mandela’s legal career to his first marriage to his increasing frustration and anger with the brutal South African system to his second marriage to his decision to accept violent revolution to his decades of incarceration and his ultimate redemption.  There’s no time to linger on anything; the narrative should either have been a TV miniseries, or else confined to a segment of Mandela’s life (as Clint Eastwood’s Invictus did a few years ago, or as last year’s Lincoln did with its subject).

Perhaps it was the strain of squeezing so many historically important events into a single film or a limitation of Chadwick’s and Nicholson’s in general, but Long Walk‘s much bigger flaw is that it lacks any passion or imagination–or even, really, a point of view.  It doggedly plods from one scene to the next, regarding Mandela with an oversimplifying awe that feels more suited to a religious epic than a political one.  (When, released from prison, he’s able to go out among the South African people, you half-expect him to heal the sick.)  Elba is more than capable of instilling his characters with complicated and even tangled layers, but this Mandela is so unambiguously good that he stops being interesting.  Aside from a brief reference to his youthful indiscretions during his first marriage, and a very occasional bit of dry wit, the film gives us a Mandela without shading or personality.  It’s as though the filmmakers were afraid that if their Mandela had even a flicker of unworthy emotion, an instant of self-interest or shallowness, the whole movie would fall apart.

It’s puzzling that Nicholson’s script spends much time on Mandela interacting with his trusted lieutenants in prison, men with whom he could presumably confide and show the various facets of his feelings, and then treats them all as interchangeable nonentities, with Mandela’s relations with them authoritative and supportive but nothing more.  Major decisions in Mandela’s life, from his approval of violent tactics to his strategy of dealing with the government once they decide they must negotiate with him, are only stated and never really discussed.  There’s no one for this Mandela to debate or dislike or even flare up at in anger; he spends  50 years being almost perfectly even-tempered.  Long Walk ultimately has to face the strained and then untenable relationship between Mandela and his second wife Winnie (Naomie Harris, another very fine performer), but here, too, a few fierce looks from Harris and some more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger reflection by Elba is all we get.

It’s a shame, not only because Mandela is one of the towering figures of the 20th century, but because Elba could clearly have brought so much more to the part; it’s crazy that his drug dealing Stringer Bell was more interesting than his Nelson Mandela.  Elba accomplishes all the technical challenges of the role, from the accent to the physical presence (although he’s betrayed by some inexpressive prostheses on his face as Mandela ages), but he can’t invent a script that isn’t there.

Chadwick and Nicholson do a competent job at the superficial business of telling Mandela’s story, with some sweep in the visuals (the cinematography is by Lol Crawley and the production design by Johnny Breedt) and a pace that constantly hops to the next piece of biography to be told.  (The music, however, by Alex Heffes, is far too pointedly on-the-button.)  In the end, Nelson Mandela’s story demanded more than competence, and unhappily didn’t find it.  One of the world’s most inspiring and remarkable histories is reduced to an illustrated Wikipedia entry.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."