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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Apologies that it's been a fortnight since my last review. I'll try and do better in future.
NEXT FILM: Dracula (1958)