There are many reasons to admire what director Justin Chadwick and screenwriter William Nicholson have attempted with Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. They've chosen to depict more than fifty years in the momentous life of South African activist and freedom fighter Nelson Mandela, a life that could fill two or three movies with room left over for more. While many biopics, such as the recent Mandela rugby movie Invictus, prefer to focus on the events surrounding a major event, this film bucks the trend and goes for it all, and that ambition far exceeds its grasp.
Much of the early buzz surrounding the film has centered on the performance by Idris Elba as Mandela, but there's a reason why much of that talk has quieted. Simply, he's not given an awful lot to work with here, thanks to a script curiously devoid of signature moments. There's never a scene that encapsulates who Mandela was and why he was the driving engine in apartheid's ultimate collapse. Beginning with a handful of quotes establishing the Bible basis for whites' perceived superiority over native blacks, we're then flashed back to Mandela's tribal upbringing and his passage into manhood. From there it jumps straight into his beginning as a lawyer, where the beginnings of his fight against oppression took root.
Centering the action on his early career before he was considered such a virtuous figure might have been the wisest course of action as it shows the flawed human sides of Mandela most are unaccustomed. The film doesn't skirt over his womanizing past, and his first marriage which failed largely due to his inattentiveness and adulterous ways. As he begins building a coalition to stand against the current regime, he quickly becomes enraptured by Winnie Mandela (Naomie Harris), who would become his wife, confidante, and later an ideological rival. Rejecting his non-violent stance, Mandela's aggressive tactics make him public enemy #1, but when captured he slyly maneuvers his way into a living martyr role by avoiding a death sentence.
Based on Mandela's memoir, the bulk of the story takes place during his 27-year imprisonment where he continues to fight the good fight against brutal, racist guards. Meanwhile, the world is changing outside of the prison walls. An uprising has begun against the white government, and Winnie has become one of its central components. Whereas Mandela's plight is mostly glossed over, like so much of his story unfortunately is, Winnie's turmoil is the most revealing of all. Naomie Harris steals the spotlight away from Elba effortlessly in her charismatic, fiery portrayal as we see Winnie forged into a determined soldier for retribution against the establishment. It stands in stark contrast to Mandela, who went into his sentence a man or rage but emerged a mannered, reasonable man more interested in peace than exacting vengeance.
Elba shines in the early portions of the film, capturing Mandela's youthful energy and easy charm that helped win him so many supporters. But as the film glosses over so much in order to get us from one point in his life to the next as easily as possible, we also lose sight of who Mandela is. In particular we never learn the reasons for the transformations he would undergo, from violent revolutionary to reflective champion for equality. It doesn't help that Elba's waxy old age make-up is a laughable distraction. Chadwick has done solid work as a director but, much like his heartwarming Kenyan film The First Grader, he's trying too hard to give us an easily digestible feel-good film rather than delving into his subject with any real depth. The suffering Mandela experienced in the service of his cause does provide for a few stirring moments, but Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom sheds little light and is at best a primer to his story.