Elba makes a worthy Oscar bid in this solid biopic
Whilst far from perfect, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a fitting way to celebrate the life of the great man who passed away just this week.And he was a great man. Arguably the most important man in the entire history of South Africa. But before he was a great man, he was just a man – and during the more than a quarter of a Century he spent incarcerated in between, he provided something equally vital: a symbol. He was a symbol of hope, justice and, ultimately, freedom from oppression. This kept the country alive until he could see these hopes made reality, which indeed he did. Long Walk to Freedom charts the entire life history of Mandela, focussing – like every good biopic should – on the man as much as the legend, and giving us insight into his early years as much as detailing his historically better-known latter years
It’s biggest flaw is the fact that it simply does not build the symbol of Mandela up enough, so much so that it is difficult to make the leap from the rebel revolutionary who entered prison, to the President who left prison, with the years of rioting and campaigning in between feeling under-inspired as a result. Thankfully this is more than made up for not only by the comprehensive four-act style of the biopic as a whole, but also by one man – Idris Elba – who turns in what will almost certainly be an Oscar Nominated performance as Mandela, and who, for perhaps the first time, jettisons his cool swagger and trademark demeanour in favour of a truly rich character portrayal and dynamic performance which, more than anything else this movie has to offer, pays ultimate tribute to the late legend.
Split into four acts, the narrative of this tale looks at several key points in Mandela’s life in detail, charting his rise from passionate but disillusioned lawyer to speech giver and freedom fighter – as he took his place in the African National Congress (ANC) – and then detailing his quarter-century incarceration for high treason against the State, before the minority white Government finally began the discussions that would lead eventually not only to his release, but also his lawful democratic election to the Presidency.
Even for those who know a great deal about Mandela, the film’s extensive depiction of his early years will likely feel welcome and fresh, as we get some insight into his background, and what eventually saw him justify a call to arms and shift from non-violent to violent activism. Perhaps a little creative liberty has been taken with his personal involvement in targeted bombings, but this does not take away from the power of the ensuing trial, where he verbally turns the tables on the state, demanding that it be them that are put on trial.
Although this is a distinctly slow-burning tale, it is never less than compelling, and Brit director Justin Chadwick does well to heighten the tension gradually, and deliver us the most satisfying final act imaginable, as the whole piece crescendos to Mandela’s release and rise to power. It may be a two-and-a-half-hour feature, but it maintains interest throughout by consistently shifting through the landmark events in the man’s life – from romantic idealist to driven activist; from prison survivor to the man who would ultimately, and so humbly, take the reins of the entire country, and, despite all that was done to him at the hands of his oppressors, call for peace and democracy, rather than revenge and tyranny.
Whilst it does not merely paint in broad strokes, the more detailed touches do not fully explain precisely how he became the legend that is Mandela.
Unfortunately the film is not without its flaws, as aforementioned, and the greatest of these probably comes as a direct result of the efforts to provide such a full and complete biopic – based on Mandela’s own autobiography of the same name – in that the director allows the landmark events to drive the script, and often forgets to build the story seamlessly between them. This has the knock-on effect of leaving us with a somewhat unfinished feeling, particularly when it comes to connecting the dots.
We spend plenty of time seeing Mandela grow from lawyer to activist, but this comes at the expense of painting a suitably rich picture of the ever-growing symbol of hope and freedom that Mandela was supposed to be growing into. Thus when he gets incarcerated, you struggle to bridge the gap between the man who went into prison, and the man who the nation – and the world – spend the best part of the next three decades rallying behind. Similarly we get to see what prison life was like for Mandela, and revel in the minor victories and many struggles during his time behind bars, but this too comes at the expense of looking at the development within him to become the kind of man who could then, at the very end of his life, rise to take control of the country, and use his power to turn it around.
Of course he was that man, and this is exactly what he did, but the movie does not fully convince us as to precisely how. Instead we are forced to rely on the movie’s greatest asset to help guide us through the shakier moments, and convince us as to the worthiness of the whole – the lead actor, Idris Elba.
With a largely unknown supporting cast – something which works in the favour of the production (the only known actor, Skyfall’s annoying Naomie Harris, initially seems thoroughly out of her depth as the second most important character, wife Winnie Mandela, but does bring the performance home when it comes the darker latter-end twists) – this is basically a one-man show, and Elba does a tremendous job. Known for his cool swagger and gruff no-nonsense attitude as Detective John Luther, Elba’s been in the business for quite some time (I first saw him on the underrated BBC TV series Ultraviolet some 15 years ago) but has only just cracked Hollywood, following a career-defining turn as drug lord Stringer Bell in the excellent TV series The Wire, his success as Luther, and a few prominent supporting parts in bigger Hollywood productions – from Thor to Ghost Rider 2; from Prometheus to Pacific Rim.
Despite looking nothing like the real-life man, a convincing accent and a suitably nuanced and committed performance will certainly make you forget he's Idris 'Luther' Elba.
His portrayal as Mandela sees him stripped bare and reformed in the mould of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning legend, adopting – most strikingly – a very convincing accent which further helps distance Elba from his previous defining roles, both in his native East End Brit accent and a seamless US alternative. Whilst his key speeches do not quite have the required impact, his surrounding character portrayal is consistently excellent, oftentimes drawing us into the film even more than the landmark events themselves. Indeed it’s a testament to Elba’s perhaps hitherto underappreciated acting skills that he manages to so convincingly play a world-renowned real-life man like Mandela despite the fact that he looks absolutely nothing like him (the shifting make-up applied to age him has varying degrees of success - the latter years work, but some of the in-between masks look a little rubbery). Elba may not win the Award - this doesn't feel like a Denzel Washington/Halle Berry year for the Oscars - but he will undoubtedly, and deservedly be Nominated for Best Actor.
ConclusionCertainly there are shortcomings in Long Walk to Freedom, which plays with such a potent story and yet does not have quite the skill or direction to deliver the impact that you would expect, but between Elba’s performance and the underlying strength of Mandela’s own life story, there is much to engage with in this film; a movie which, ultimately, marks a fitting tribute to the legend, and a perfect way to celebrate the life and legacy of this great man.
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