"Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" Review: Craig's First Take

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Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is based on South African President Nelson Mandela's autobiography of the same name, which chronicles his early life, coming of age, education and 27 years in prison before becoming President and working to rebuild the country’s once segregated society. Idris Elba (Prometheus) stars as Nelson Mandela, Naomie Harris (Skyfall) stars as Winnie Mandela, with Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) directing.
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Nelson Mandela will no doubt join Ron Woodruff and Solomon Northup in the best actor pool this year and really doesn’t Idris Elba deserve it? A scene stealer in nearly everything he’s been in (“The Wire”, “Pacific Rim” to name a few), he’s an actor I can’t wait to see take on a bigger role in Hollywood. Again he’s the best thing here, managing to overcome direction and a screenplay based on Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom” that adheres too closely to the Bio-pic tropes.

“Mandela” tries to cover from 1942 up until his election in 1994. There is a lot of material to cover and screenwriter William Nicholson and director Justin Chadwick try to shoe-horn it all in, which can be equal parts compelling and exhausting. Some of it can also be pretty vague, like how does Mandela (Elba) go from joining the boycott of white oppression in South Africa to being its leader? Also there is a lot of talk about a fist of power, but the movie really only focuses on Mandela rather than his co-horts.

This is also one of those films, much like “42” earlier this year, where the movie is more taken with hero worship than the man. Still the starting of the movement, meeting Winnie (Naomie Harris), his second wife and a militant revolutionary herself who was completely devoted to the cause, his decision to fight brutality with violence of his own, his long imprisonment on Reuben Island, and finally release and rise to peaceful leader hold interest but editing some of these things down wouldn’t have hurt either. 

But Elba is terrific here as this strong-willed campaigner of justice. He’s powerful but also has scenes of heartbreak and loss that are riveting to watch. Harris is also really solid as Winnie, a woman who tells Mandela right off the bat that she is prepared to work to “save ourselves” and as we get to know her more and more, we realize how much she means that.

Impressive make-up effects help as well. Just “Mandela” has the kind of problems only a bio-pic could really have. It feels both too long at times and others too condensed, it feels like it clings to the important elements of the book it’s based on (and those elements of course make him a great man) but it feels like a reference rather than something that packs a punch. While the film is problematic, it’s Elba and this cast who really bring these historical figures to life.

3 out of 5