Despite his deteriorating health and eventual death being in the headlines constantly around the globe, it was quite odd to know that there was a Nelson Mandela film in development and (by the time of his death) in theaters that barely received any attention at all. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom was quietly released into theaters where it barely registered at the box office. That was probably for the best as the life of Nelson Mandela was far more important than any film could give it credit for. Yet Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom tries its best to give a tribute to the man with decent results. It may be a bit formulaic but the components of the film (outside of the lackluster script) are solid enough to make the film interesting when it gets to the more interesting parts of Mandela’s life (such as his involvement in the transition away from Apartheid-era South Africa).
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom follows the life of Nelson Mandela (played in the film by Idris Elba) before he came to power. The film is directed by Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) and is written by William Nicholson (Gladiator, Les Miserables).
Mandela starts off a bit slow as Justin Chadwick and William Nicholson really struggle to make this anything other than a Greatest Hits version of Nelson Mandela’s life. Credit has to be given that they at least try to portray Mandela as a mortal and fallible human being rather than a caricature of nobility, but it seems like the early portions of this film could have used a rewrite or another editing pass to make it a little more polished. As the film goes on, however, it seems like everything settles in and this ultimately becomes a better examination of Mandela than recent films such as Clint Eastwood’s Invictus. The film also really thrives on the politics involved in Mandela’s life as Chadwick and Nicholson really seem to have a handle on the backroom drama in the later scenes of the film.
With so many larger than life people being portrayed in this film you probably could have expected a bit better than what the cast delivers. Idris Elba is solid as Nelson Mandela. He does a great job of portraying the transition from the younger version of the man to the older. With Elba’s performance Nelson Mandela seems so foreign at first but it’s amazing to see the slow transition to the man we know from videos and TV. The one downside of the performance is that Elba is missing the gravitas that Morgan Freeman’s performance had in Invictus. The supporting cast barely registers at all. Naomie Harris is unimpressive as Winnie Mandela. The film actually gives her the time for the performance to truly stand out, but she doesn’t take any advantage of that.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a solid attempt at honoring a man whose life couldn’t be summed up by any work of art. There’s not much to come away disappointed by, but there is nothing at all to inspire you either.