Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Justin Chadwick's Nelson Mandela biopic features great performances from Idris Elba and Naomi Harris
Let’s get the cliché out of the way first. Yes, it’s been a long walk to bring Nelson Mandela’s autobiography to the big screen. Countless directors, writers and actors – including Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington – have come and gone. But finally, after almost two decades, Mandela’s story makes it to the screen. Entrusted with this precious gift is British director Justin Chadwick, a smart choice given his last film, 2010’s The First Grader, was also a true-life biopic that took him to Africa.
While that film dealt with an aged man from a small Kenyan village determined to learn, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is also a story about education – albeit on a grand scale. Chadwick, working from a script by Gladiator’s William Nicholson, deserves credit simply for attempting a cohesive story that spans 50 years of personal and public history, stretching back to Mandela’s early days as a lawyer in 1940s Johannesburg before his introduction to the African National Congress.
There are times when the film can feel too whistle-stop, blasting through years and events as South Africa becomes mired in the apartheid regime and Mandela (Idris Elba) and second wife Winnie (Naomie Harris) lead the fight against racial segregation. Inevitably, when Mandela is arrested and imprisoned on Robben Island, the film slows down, with Chadwick uncertain how to handle the shift from breakneck events to the emotional anguish that comes with imprisonment across 27 long years.
If he too often labours under the weight of responsibility and history, in Elba and Harris, the director has two supreme actors on top form who carry the film through its stickier patches. Elba is full of gravitas and Harris laced with fire, and both crucially add a human touch to a story that threatens to become engulfed by politics. They alone make this worth a watch.
General release from Fri 3 Jan.