Wednesday, August 28, 2013
Any film that tries to encompass most of Nelson Mandela’s long life carries an enormous burden of expectation. How can one film do the man justice? And in attempting to do so, how can it be vital and compelling rather than merely well-meaning and didactic?
Mandela confronts these problems and, after a faintly unsure start, manages to rise above them. It certainly helps to have a charismatic actor in the lead role, and those who recall Idris Elba’s stellar turn as Stringer Bell in The Wire will know he fits the bill. Dashing and physically imposing as the younger man, Elba’s body language relaxes as Mandela ages; he seems to acquire wisdom and gravitas along with whitening hair and a shuffling gait.
There are lots of events to pack in, and the script by William Nicholson (Gladiator, Shadowlands), adapted from Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, is laudably comprehensive; yet he has a gift for conveying milestone moments briskly.
Idris Elba plays the father of South African freedom, with Naomie Harris as his impassioned wife in Justin Chadwick's epic biographical portrait.
It takes a commanding actor to fill the shoes of the man most instrumental in ending institutionalized oppression in South Africa, and the charismatic Idris Elba proves equal to the task in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Directed by Justin Chadwick with perhaps an inhibiting sense of cultural responsibility but also with the emotional sweep that such a momentous life story demands, this is sumptuously produced epic-scale bio-drama stamped from the classic mold.
The success of The Help and Lee Daniels’ The Butler showed that audiences will turn out for films about race. The challenge facing the Weinstein Company with this late-November release will be to test whether that holds for a history lesson set on the other side of the world.
Like those aforementioned hits, Mandela is straightforward storytelling of a type that’s somewhat out of fashion, but ultimately no less stirring for it.
The opening is uneven, reaching bluntly for instant inspirational notes and then larding the early scenes with a busy selection of music choices in an effortful bid to escape the constraints of the didactic biopic. But the two-and-a-half-hour film finds its voice and improves steadily, anchored by the conviction of the lead performance and terrific support from Naomie Harris (Skyfall) as Winnie Mandela.
Adapted by William Nicholson from Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, which supplies the subtitle, the film unfolds in exhaustive detail, providing context if not a great deal of complexity. It traces Nelson’s Xhosa roots in the rural hills; his politicization as a young lawyer; his rise to prominence in the initially nonviolent African National Congress; his increasing militancy in the face of shocking acts of brutality against black South Africans; and his arrest and conviction with a handful of close ANC colleagues on charges of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government.
The personal focus behind this trajectory is on Nelson’s sustaining love for his wife, played with grace and powerful anger by Harris. Winnie steps into his life soon after the exit of his first wife (Terry Pheto), driven away by his womanizing. Undeterred by his track record, she informs him that she’s not like his other girls, and we believe her. Beneath the sweetness of this poised young beauty there’s an unyielding sense of purpose. This keeps her staunchly behind her husband’s radical activism even at great personal cost, but also hints at the ideological divide to come during the long years of Nelson’s incarceration.
The controversial aspects of Winnie Mandela’s life are not glossed over, and Harris gives convincing evidence of her irreversible hardening as she continues to endorse violence long after her more moderate husband has publicly condemned its use in the struggle.
Condensing Nelson Mandela’s story – from growing up in a small village in South Africa to becoming the country’s president – into 152 minutes sounds an impossible task, and so it proves.
The film starts with two statements that were used as a rationale for apartheid, the first about science proving whites have bigger brains and the second that the bible advocates the superiority of the white race. It follows this by saying that the UK and US supported the apartheid regime.
From the opening titles the pace of information never slows, but apart from the relationship between Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba) and his second wife Winnie (Naomie Harris), the level of analysis never delves deeper than surface.
The director Justin Chadwick makes the mistake of trying to fit too much in – Mandela is shown leaving his village as he enters manhood, working as a lawyer defending black maids against their white masters, and marrying and divorcing his first wife.
Blitzing through protests at train stations, the action finally takes a pause for breath as it shows the wedding of Nelson and Winnie. All this happens in the first 30 minutes and the pace never relents, jumping from the Sharpeville massacre in March 1960 to his arrest in 1963, then from his subsequent 27 years in jail to his eventual release.
Having taken nearly as long to reach the screen as its subject spent imprisoned by South Africa’s brutal apartheid government, producer Anant Singh’s film of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography finally arrives bearing the slightly musty odor of a 1980s Richard Attenborough superproduction: stolidly reverential, shackled to the most dire conventions of the mythmaking biopic, and very much a white man’s view of the “dark” continent. Making “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” seem positively avant-garde by comparison, director Justin Chadwick (“The Other Boleyn Girl”) and screenwriter William Nicholson’s CliffsNotes version of Mandela’s nearly 700-page memoir never opts for a light touch when a sledgehammer will do, slathered in golden sunsets, inspirational platitudes and John Barry-esque strings that will doubtless make a certain contingent of awards voters sit up and beg for more. But for all its failings, there is one thing about “Long Walk to Freedom” that can’t be denied: Idris Elba gives a towering performance, a Mandela for the ages.
Positioned by its U.S. distrib, the Weinstein Co., as an Oscar big-leaguer, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” seems less of a sure bet commercially, where it will open in the immediate wake of two other decades-spanning chronicles of black historical figures (“The Butler” and “12 Years a Slave”), to say nothing of the myriad other Mandela-themed films that have surfaced on screens big and small in recent years (affording everyone from Sidney Poitier to Terrence Howard a shot at the role).
At the time of Clint Eastwood’s superior “Invictus,” which smartly focused on a small episode from Mandela’s life that felt representative of the whole, it was widely noted that Eastwood’s star, Morgan Freeman (the actor Mandela himself said should play him), had spent years working with Singh and a raft of screenwriters on a version of “Long Walk to Freedom,” only to be defeated by the challenge of condensing such a long and complicated life (both personally and politically) into a single film. And though the movie has finally been made, the unwieldy nature of the narrative has hardly been tamed, especially in the pic’s third act, when Nicholson’s script haphazardly cuts among its hero’s impending release from prison, his estranged wife’s descent into radical politics, and a nation teetering on the brink of civil war.
But you know what you’re in for pretty early on in Chadwick’s film, which opens with slow-motion images of children in a Xhosa village running through a wheat field at dusk, sun flares kissing the camera’s lens and throaty tribal singing on the soundtrack. We are about to witness a Xhosa rite of passage in which teenage boys — one of them Mandela — become men, and from the way Chadwick and cinematographer Lol Crawley shoot it, we might just as well be witnessing the birth of Christ. Not even five minutes into the movie, and Mandela is already a veritable martyr.
As in Attenborough’s “Gandhi” (upon which “Long Walk” appears to have been closely modeled), almost everything that follows are great and/or tragic moments from the life of the great and tragic man: births, deaths, marriages, separations, fiery speeches and unjust imprisonments. Nicholson (himself a former Attenborough collaborator) tries to cram in so much history that the movie scarcely has time for the everyday: Judging from the evidence here, you’d think Mandela never so much as read the newspaper over breakfast.
An unquestionably earnest and massive undertaking, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom aspires to do nothing less than be the definitive overview of South African leader Nelson Mandela’s life, one of the most colourful and momentous of the 20th century. But the ambition of the film’s scope isn’t matched by the artistry of its vision: This nearly two-and-a-half-hour biopic is largely too tasteful and conventional to offer much insight into the remarkable man it wishes to celebrate.
Premiering at the Toronto Film Festival, Mandela will be released in the US at the end of November by the Weinstein Company, which will push hard for Oscar consideration, especially for Idris Elba’s lead performance as Mandela. Worldwide familiarity with Mandela ought to be a major theatrical selling point, and one can imagine that the movie will eventually become an instructional tool in classrooms to offer a primer on Mandela’s legacy.
Based on Mandela’s autobiography, the film covers over 50 years, providing a brief flashback to the man’s upbringing before focusing on his adulthood, spanning his time as a lawyer in the 1940s up to his election as South Africa’s president in the ‘90s. Mandela doesn’t shy away from his early womanising and failed first marriage, but the bulk of William Nicholson’s screenplay concentrates on the activist’s marriage to his second wife Winnie (Naomie Harris) and his growing opposition to South Africa’s oppressive white government, which eventually earned him what was expected to be a lifetime prison sentence.
Manchester filmmaker Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) previously made The First Grader, the true story of an elderly Kenyan who decided he wanted to learn to read before he died. That film was a well-meaning, simplistic, drama that loaded up on feel-good sentiment, and on a larger scale that is also what Mandela achieves. But the film’s more epic objectives remain unfulfilled.