Critics thus far generally agree that Idris Elba turns in a fine performance as the eponymous lead of Justin Chadwick’s biopic “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” which recently premiered at TIFF. They also generally agree that the film itself isn’t up to Idris’ performance, that it’s overly “reverential” tone and “sledgehammer” subtlety bedevil it from the get-go. As the Guardian notes, it’s an “Encarta Encyclopedia article laid out on an epic scale.” More below.
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.
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.
[Elba’s] take on the icon is respectful and deft. Winnie is
played by Naomie Harris, who charges the character with a revolutionary zeal.
The film rushes through Mandela’s life and times.
Johannesburg, Sharpeville, Robben Island, freedom. It’s a tick-box check-list
of things you should know about the man. An Encarta Encyclopedia article laid
out on an epic scale. Time is contracted (we spend 30 minutes in prison;
Mandela got 27 years), the greatest hits are rolled out, but there’s nothing
that embraces the idea that life makes a man and informs his politics. The
day-to-day is lost in the bluster.
Elba’s face has been transformed to make the actor look more
like Mandela. He is terrific as womaniser and young radical, delivering a
rousing speech at a cinema and also in the run-up to the 1994 election calling
for peace on television.
Chadwick gambles that the central love story will carry the
picture – a young couple driven apart by political necessity. But just like the
real relationship, it ultimately fails to work.
Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom, directed by Justin Chadwick
(Bleak House on TV, The Other Boleyn Girl) and scripted by William Nicholson,
barely attempts drama, instead just stringing together key moments from the
life of Mandela, without much continuity other than chronology, the whole
project having been crippled by reverence. It is like an educational video, the
message driven home by lots of scenes in golden sunlight, fuzzily filmed in
slow motion, to a soundtrack of soaring African music.
As Mandela, Idris Elba (The Wire, Luther) makes a valiant
attempt at impersonating the great man but it feels an imposture throughout,
especially as he ages, conveyed by whitening hair and a stiffer gait.
To be sure, there’s very little that’s terribly wrong with
Chadwick’s film. Mandela wouldn’t be confused with scintillating cinema, but it
tells its story in a thoughtful manner, presenting Mandela’s life in a
straightforward way without trying to inject any sort of artificial character
arc onto the story. But that hands-off approach also means that the film
doesn’t have much of a point of view about its narrative, serving more as a
rote recitation of memorable moments from Mandela’s life rather than as an
incisive perspective on the events or their political and social repercussions.