Summarising the vast struggles and incredible journey of the great Nelson Mandela in a biopic about his life, is by no means an easy task. Mandela, who served 27 years in prison for his involvement with the ANC (African National Congress), is a figure we all know and respect as the man who helped end Apartheid in South Africa and harness a revolution for the people. Manchester born director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl, The First Grader) attempts to encapsulate Mandela’s journey to freedom in a two and a half hour film showcasing the trials and tribulations he faced when seeking to bring equality to his country. Idris Elba (The Wire, Luther) stars as Mandela, portraying him as a child and young man up to his old age. His wife Winnie is played by Naomie Harris (Skyfall, 28 Days Later), who we see transform from a doting and affectionate young wife into a staunch activist.
I am ashamed to say that I didn’t know much about the details of Mandela’s life before seeing this film. I doubt I’m alone in saying that I knew he was a great man who accomplished incredible things in his lifetime, but I was never taught about Apartheid at school or university; it was a topic that was sadly glossed over. With that being said, it’s our responsibility to educate ourselves where such important issues are concerned, so I’m most certainly not making excuses for myself. Biopic films about great people are often scrutinized for their takes on what is factual and relevant. It can be a bad idea to see a film about a person you don’t know a great deal about, as it can leave you with a false impression of the person in question. However, I don’t think the same can be said for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. The film is simply brilliant and I walked away from it feeling inspired and educated.
I was lucky enough to be able to attend a screening of the film at the AFI (American Film Institute) festival in Los Angeles. Before the film was shown Justin Chadwick spoke to the audience and expressed his objectives prior to making it. He was certain that he didn’t want to simply imitate Mandela; he wanted to pay homage to him in a convincing and enlightening way. Many have complained that Elba doesn’t resemble Mandela strongly enough, but if that is the only aspect you can think to focus on about this movie, then you have completely missed the point. As Chadwick explained, it’s not enough to simply imitate the man.
It’s always refreshing seeing British actors being given the spotlight and Idris Elba doesn’t disappoint in his role. His performance is terrific because he conveys the real hardship Mandela tackled in his fight for redemption. When he administers the famous quote “It is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”, spoken by Mandela at his trial, it is not only believable; it encapsulates the spirit and presence of the man himself. When we see Mandela confined to his tiny prison cell on Robben Island, the lengths to which he suffered is really brought home. Elba portrays the unwavering resolve of a man unwilling to give up hope, even when plunged to the darkest depths of despair. Naomie Harris also delivers as his wife. Her breakdown after his imprisonment and subsequently her own, is heart wrenching and powerful to watch. We see a woman who is similarly not prepared to give up on her cause, even when faced with the prospect of never seeing her children again. If there isn’t an Oscar nod for Elba or Harris (or both), I’d be very surprised. I was on the edge of my seat throughout the film and could feel the genuine anguish of the characters.
Set against a beautiful South African backdrop and with a superb soundtrack, the breathtaking cinematography accentuates the astounding story of Mandela’s life. I urge you to see Long Walk to Freedom when it comes out in the UK. Like many great films, this is one that is best witnessed on the big screen.