There are moments in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom when it's impossible not to realize the greatness of the film 12 Years a Slave.
Wait a minute. What?
While it may be unfair to compare the two films, such a comparison is inevitable given that they both center around major aspects of Black history and they both are, at least to a certain degree, biographical motion pictures using one man's story to tell universal truths. Unfortunately for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom director Justin Chadwick, seeing 12 Years a Slave first only magnified the flaws contained within a film that certainly tells the Nelson Mandela story effectively but ultimately pales in terms of structure and storytelling to the far superior 12 Years a Slave.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, as many know by now, actually had its world premiere in the U.K. on the same weekend that the iconic Mandela passed away in Johannesburg. Authorized by his Mandela and his family, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a good film but it's also a film that never comes close to rising up to the great heights of its subject matter despite a soaring and authoritative performance from Idris Elba (television's The Wire). In most years, Elba's remarkable performance would be a shoo-in for an Academy Award nomination but this year happens to be filled to the brim with fine leading actor performances and Elba is likely a darkhorse at best.
I am not in any way intending to disparage Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, a good and occasionally mesmerizing biopic that runs the fullness of Mandela's life starting with the obligatory childhood scenes before quickly transitioning to an early 1940's Johannesburg where Mandela has become a somewhat successful lawyer yet he quickly realizes that he is still very much a second class citizen. Mandela's experiences eventually lead him to become a member of the African National Congress, and the film doesn't shy away from showing the Mandela that everyone seems to forget when he became radicalized following the Sharpeville Massacre and did, with much reluctance, become involved in the movement's increased violence that would eventually lead to his arrest and life sentence without parole on Robben Island, a sentence deemed "mercy" by the judge presiding over the trial as conviction for his crimes mandated a sentence of death.
Alongside Elba's extraordinary performance as Mandela, easily the best Mandela portrayal alongside recent efforts by Morgan Freeman and Terrence Howard, Naomie Harris gives an equally powerhouse performance as Winnie Mandela, Mandela's second wife whose radicalization gets fueled in intensity over the course of her husband's 27-year incarceration and through the South African institution's at times horrifically intense efforts to break her spirit.
Mandela, whom we are reminded was not imprisoned alone, was over 70-years-old when released from Robben Island after a series of high-level negotiations with the administration of South African President F.W. De Klerk (Gys de Villiers) largely inspired by the country's obvious inching closer and closer to all out civil war.
There are times when it seems like Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is on the verge of becoming a brilliant film only to see it slip back into formulaic biopic again. While it's certainly an effective biopic, given the extraordinary life lived by Nelson Mandela one would hope for an equally extraordinary film. Chadwick simply tries too hard to tell the entire story rather than digging deeper and getting down to the essence of Nelson Mandela. Lol Crawley's lensing is incredibly beautiful, but there are too many times when Chadwick falls back on gimmicky, slo-mo shots and an overwrought original score from Alex Heffes that seems to be trying to intentionally guide us towards what to feel as the film moves along.
For those who truly admire Mandela, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom may be your best opportunity to see a film that truly tells his story in inspiring and dramatic fashion with equally inspired performances by both Idris Elba and Naomie Harris along with the rest of the ensemble cast. While the film isn't likely to satisfy on the level of the surefire Oscar nominee 12 Years a Slave, it's still a well done film telling one of recent history's most compelling and life-changing stories.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic