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Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom


Stars: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Jamie Bartlett, Lindiwe Matshikiza, Terry Pheto, Deon Lotz

Director: Justin Chadwick

Even the most horrendously-blocked fiction writer would be highly unlikely to come up with a plot device so clearly unlikely as the announcement of the death of the subject of a much-promoted biopic would be announced during the film’s Royal Premiere.

Which only goes to prove yet again the sheer superiority of fact over fiction.

Given that Nelson Mandela is currently held to be a latter-day saint, it was obvious that the story of his “extraordinary life, from his childhood in a rural village through to his inauguration as the first democratically elected President of South Africa” was hardly likely to be a warts-and-all biopic.

And it isn’t. What we get is a somewhat simplistic, sanitised saga of hero-worship following the celebrated saviour of South Africa from his childhood in the rural Transkei Hills, through his metamorphosis into a sharp-suited lawyer in Apartheid-fouled Johannesburg, and life as a loose living lover prior to his marriage, before turning to violence against Apartheid (“I am admitting the charges”, he states at his trial) and becoming a violent revolutionary/freedom-fighter/guerrilla/terrorist (the film allows you to make up your mind which, with freedom fighter emerging as the most promoted description), his capture and incarceration on Robben Island for the major period of his life and finally, his triumphant emergence as the leader of his people, peacemaker against Apartheid and ennoblement as the first President of a Free South Africa…

On the credit side, this sanitised story of Mandela’s life and times is vividly told by director Justin Chadwick, who benefits immensely from Idris Elba’s powerful performance as Mandela. While the charismatic character he creates may owe rather more to William Nicholson’s screenplay (motto – when in doubt, gloss over it or ignore it completely?) than the person he is playing, his performance is spellbinding, apart from a less-than-convincing accent which is frequently exposed as such by minor South African actors in the cast.

Naomie Harris, too, impresses as Winnie Mandela and there are no poor portrayals, apart from the occasional ham served up by actors forced to play caricatures rather than genuine characters. That said, the triumph is Elba’s.

Chadwick sensibly decorates his film with lashings of local colour (the gaudy rural wedding of Mandela and Winnie would not disgrace National Geographic magazine in its Technicolor prime) and, in effect, delivers two films in one, the first a well-made biopic with a narrative that elides over uncomfortable historical accuracy, the other a award-winning history-in-hindsight hagiography in, perhaps, the style of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.

In either case, Elba dominates the movie and makes it memorable.

The choice of screenwriter William Nicholson to dramatise Mandela’s story, basing it on the subject's autobiography, is somewhat significant since he also scripted The First Grader, a less-than-true-to history story of a former Mau Mau terrorist in Kenya who, years after the bloody slayings that appalled the world in the 1950s, turns out to be a loveable old pensioner looking for an education years later. Nicholson seriously sanitised Mau Mau atrocities for this film.

(Former BBC films supremo David M Thompson produced The First Grader: ironically, he is also one of the many producers here).

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is an impressive achievement on many levels. It is also certainly a long (146 minutes) trudge, although never boring, and the film is surely destined to become a staple of cinema for schools in the future.

Alan Frank

UK/South Africa 2013. UK Distributor: Pathe. Colour.
146 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: 12A.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 1, Violence/Horror 2, Drugs 0, Swearing 0.

Review date: 29 Dec 2013