The unconditional release of Nelson Mandela on February 11th 1990 marked the first major historical event to happen in my lifetime. Being only three months old at the time and, obviously, having no memory of the years proceeding the occasion, my education on the life of Mandela was provided by the British media in the decades following his freedom. The man I came to know was the old, smiling, madiba shirt wearing gentleman who rejoiced in the winning of the Rubgy World Cup and was lucky enough to meet the Spice Girls. The story of his life is one that from early in his journey was destined for the big screen, and there is no better way for me personally to pay tribute to the man, so recently passed, than by devoting two and a half hours of my time watching new biopic Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom.
The film is a triumphant example of the difficult cinematic exercise of showing another side of a tale that many feel they know so well. It tells us a version of the story with which we are, perhaps, more unfamiliar, but unlike, for recent example, Diana, it did so without completely defaming and unjustly scandalising its subject. Mandela is portrayed as a man with great flaws, the pre-incarceration portion of the tale highlights his weakness for attractive women and the resulting disintegration of his first marriage. Director Justin Chadwick does not shy away from showing the audience that the unifying man modern history remembers was not always so peaceful in protest with a sequence in which he attends an ANC training camp and learns how to make explosive devices, a sharp reminder that Mandela once indulged in the very actions that he later opposed. The key aspect of characterisation within the first third of the film, though, is that the audience can recognise in Mandela the capacity and propensity to channel his charisma and influence in a more effective and unifying way. We see this change in attitude begin to occur during his time in prison and these two sides to his character are perfectly captured by a set piece in which Mandela is confronted by an angst ridden, fist ready young man who is one of the many new prisoners on Robben Island that come to represent an entire generation of black South Africans who have grown up during his imprisonment and under the influence, predominantly, of his wife Winnie, portrayed as a woman broken by the early years of her involvement and confrontation with white supremacy and glued back together by as much anger and vengeance as anyone could imagine. An interesting dynamic is created between Nelson and Winnie in the sense that one is given infinite time to reflect on their actions and beliefs, whilst the other is thrust in to the heart of the physical struggle and sees no other way to combat her enemies than with calculated and catastrophic violence.
And it is this relationship between Mandela and Winnie that is the real highlight of the film, thanks solely to the extraordinary performances given by Idris Elba and Naomie Harris respectively. Having seen the film and experienced the impact of Elba’s portrayal, I cannot think of a single actor who could have produced a finer characterisation. If you close your eyes it is as if you are listening to Mandela himself, and the aestethic similarity between the two men, particularly in the scenes detailing his younger years, are at times remarkable. But more importantly, underneath all of the impressive surface similitude, there is a gravitas and sincerity to Elba’s performance that can only come if one gives themselves completely to the role, something that he no doubt did. Along with Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, it is one of the strongest leading performances from a male actor I have experienced in the last year. This was not a surprise to me, being the fan of Idris Elba that I am, but something I did not expect, however, was for Naomie Harris to top his performance and steal the film for herself. Portraying the endlessly controversial figure of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Harris is nothing short of sensational. Her transition from young, idealistic wife to battle scarred, determined spokesperson for the ANC is arguably the most affecting plot point of the entire film. There was something in the steel of her eyes and the towering tone of her voice when addressing the baying crowds that startled me and wrestled my attention completely. Perhaps it is the fact that I know far less about Winnie than I do her ex-husband, but I found Harris’ characterisation to be the most interesting and captivating of the picture, a great feat when put up against the might of Idris Elba and the man he was playing.
Ultimately, the story of Nelson Mandela and every other person involved in his life is one so extraordinary that you have to remind yourself that it really was real. Mandela: A Long Walk To Freedom is heavy with history, but Elba, Harris, director Chadwick and the entire supporting cast carry it with great integrity, skill and reverence. It cannot be classed as warts and all, but neither can it be accused of being over-sentimental or rose tinted. Some critics have accused the film of being too long, but I certainly do not begrudge a picture that attempts to fit upwards of forty years of history in to one hundred and fifty minutes. The film has given me a perspective of Madiba that I can add to my memory of an ageing President who wore colourful shirts. It may not be an exhaustive history, but I believe A Long Walk To Freedom is an important story and an important portrayal for our times.