ADMIRABLE FAILURES: Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom (2014)

Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom (UK/ South Africa, 2014)
Directed by Justin Chadwick
Starring Idris Elba, Naomie Harris,  Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa

I've spoken a lot in my reviews about how biopics have a tendency to overrearch in their narrative ambitions. Films which go from the beginning to the end of a character's life are easy to sell to studios, and they do lend themselves more easily to creating a three-minute trailer which gives everything away. But as is so often the case in Hollywood, the method that produces the greatest mainstream success is not always the best way to go about something.
The last biopic I reviewed was The Look of Love, Michael Winterbottom's shallow, flimsy and unfocussed look at the life of Soho impressario Paul Raymond. Because it was attempting to cover so much in what was clearly an eventful life, the film didn't have anything to anchor it and began to bizarrely evade its central character. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom fares a great deal better with both its central character and its subject matter, but it's still riddled with all-too familiar flaws.
It was always going to be difficult to bring Nelson Mandela's life story to the big screen. Whether you believe that he deserves his pedestal or not, he remains an iconic figure, and his recent passing has only brought his legacy into sharper focus. Indeed, the fact that Mandela passed away just before the film was released should not just be viewed in terms of convenient publicity: it is a fitting way in which to understand the intentions of the film.
There have been instances in which films based on real-life events have undergone big changes mid-production as a result of other real-life events. Zero Dark Thirty was originally going to be about the failed attempt to capture Osama Bin Laden in 2001, but Bin Laden's execution mid-way through scripting resulted in huge re-writes and a drastic shift in emphasis from failure to victory (albeit a seemingly pyrrhic one). While this is an extreme example, it's fair to assume that had Mandela been made several years after the death of its subject, it may have been a little more even-handed.
To the film's credit, it manages to be positive in its depiction of Mandela without falling too much into Hollywood caricature or the British trap of being overly respectful. There isn't the same awkward distance that there is in Gandhi, with the reputation of the character only becoming important towards the end of the story when he is released from prison. Director Justin Chadwick clearly respects Mandela as a person, but he's not sycophantic in his approach to the material, and when the uglier side comes to the fore it's a welcome intrusion.
The acid test of any biopic is the same as it is in any documentary: it must engage someone who knew nothing about the individual or their story, getting them interested in something or someone in which they had previously expressed no knowledge or interest. From that point of view, Mandela would work very well for people coming to Madiba for the very first time. It gives a good grounding of the political situation in South Africa, painting in strokes which are broad but not insultingly so, and weaving Mandela's personal motivations into the situation in which his people find themselves.
One thing that the film does get right is depicting a struggle which is bigger than our main hero. In a overly Hollywood-ised biopic or historical drama, the struggle of black South Africans would be viewed only by having Mandela as a messiah figure, as though their liberation would never have come about were it not for him. While Mandela's role was significant, the film has the guts to downplay his role when it was limited, and to show his distance from key actions of the ANC, including some of the bombings that took place.
The film is well-served by the central performance of Idris Elba. Having proven his chops in out-and-out entertainment, like Pacific Rim and Luthor on TV, he is given more room here to stretch himself as a dramatic actor. He manages the accent absolutely fine, and he's aided by a certain amount of convincing make-up as Mandela ages through his time in prison. But Elba also captures the physicality of Mandela, whether it's the energetic fist-pumping of his early ANC days or the more familiar, slower posture that he exhibited in office.
Elba is balanced very nicely by Naomie Harris as Winnie. Like her co-star, Harris is being given more dramatic room for manoeuvre after a series of solid genre roles in 28 Days Later, Miami Vice and Skyfall. She provides a more emotional counterweight to Elba's increasingly thoughful, almost mellow performance, and she avoids the obvious trap of making this emotional state solely the effect of her gender or position as a mother. It's a fine performance which gives the film credulity, even if her character isn't explored as deeply as we would like.
This brings us onto the central issue with Mandela, namely its lack of genuine depth which stems from a desire to cover everything. It deserves a certain amount of praise for wanting to address periods of Mandela's life which haven't received so much attention: we've seen how big his cell was on Robben Island, but how he passed the time there has not been so widely documented. While the intentions are admirable, the film tries to cover so much ground that it would probably work much better as a TV mini-series.
The obvious comparison is with Invictus, Clint Eastwood's film which begins more or less where this one ends, with Mandela being swept to power and South Africa's eventual triumph at the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Invictus was by no means a perfect film - it did give into sentimentality in its final third, and Elba is far more convincing as Mandela than Morgan Freeman was. But Eastwood's film had one key advantage: it was focussed. It knew what it was about, and used the microcosm of that one event as a springboard into a deeper study of a divided country.
There are whole sections of Mandela which would work really, really well if they were told through hour-long episodes rather than being compressed into two-and-a-half hours. The film could easily be segmented, with different episodes covering a key phase of Mandela's life: his early years, his early marriage to Winnie and greater involvement with the ANC, his terroristic period and sentence, his time in prison, and his eventual release. Seeing the film as it is, it feels like edited highlights of an unmade TV series, in which we get enough of a narrative outline to form an emotional bond but not enough to hold up to further enquiries.
In reality, the biopic to which Mandela is closest is The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. Both films benefitted from a hrace of good central performances, and both were admirable in their intentions regarding their complex protagonists. But in both instances, you felt like you were watching the action on fast-forward, as though the filmmakers wanted to show you more but were being constrained by the nature of their medium. Even the latter's device of Peter Sellers playing many of the other characters in his life didn't give us the insight we felt that we deserved from this kind of story.
This lack of great depth leads to niggles about the depiction of the central character. In other words, the sense that there is more to the story than meets the eye makes us suspicious that Elba's portrayal is a little rose-tinted. There's nothing wrong with being sympathetic with your protagonist, but you have to keep providing reasons beyond admiration for their goals or an underlying sense of trust. While the film never falters to such an extent that we lose interest, it's a small frustration which prevents the drama from being entirely compelling.
Put simply, the story of Nelson Mandela mirrors that of South Africa as a whole, transitioning from a mentality based upon violence, tribalism and warfare to a more peaceful, forgiving and democratic attitude. In surer hands, this film could have explored the deep cultural divides that Apartheid created, and relied less on stock footage of the West's response with the 'Free Mandela' campaigns. What could have been a great film is reduced to an average one by an emphasis of plot over substance.
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is an admirable failure, which serves as a useful introduction to Nelson Mandela but fails to dig deeper when it's really necessary. Chadwick directs competently and the central performances are both very good, but the film ends up spreading itself too thin by not having a narrative focal point to drive the story. As far as biopics go, you could do a hell of a lot worse, but there's still that niggling feeling that this could have been a great deal better.


Apologies that it's been a fortnight since my last review. I'll try and do better in future.

NEXT FILM: Dracula (1958)