3.5 stars
Justin Chadwick's thorough (141 minute) biopic about the late Nelson Mandela is a rousing if linear and ultimately unsurprising affair: one that begins in the beginning and ends somewhere toward the end. Not that it could be much else; Mandela's life is one of the most chronicled and well known in recent history. The film is given an extra kick from the pedigree of its creators: Chadwick is an above average director whose The Other Boleyn Girl had merit. He joins William Nicholson (Gladiator and more recently, Les Miserables) in adapting Mandela's autobiography (Long Walk To Freedom). Idris Elba (Prometheus) takes the lead with a winning confidence and is ably supported by Naomie Harris (Skyfall and The First Grader, also directed by Chadwick) as Nelson's formidable wife, Winnie Mandela.

Opening in an idyllic, South African village of long grass and eternal sunsets, we're introduced to the young Mandela. Taking family lessons to heart, he becomes an effective lawyer but soon realises that law can't not be applied fairly or equally. His anger finds a home with the African National Congress whose acts of terrorism earned him a life sentence. While his wife Winnie continues the fight, Mandela is left to rot in jail. But the world is changing. Two and a half decades later the government calls on him to help save the country and soon after, Mandela is elected as South Africa's first black president in the country's first democratic elections.

Chadwick manages tonal shifts splendidly and steers clear of a mawkishness which could easily overpower the film. Stories of family, romance, terror, injustice and solitary confinement sit comfortably as he charts Mandela's, and South Africa's, riotous history. What it lacks is much in the way of dimension. White men are essentially caricatures of racist evil; police sneer when they're not brutally attacking people, goose-stepping wouldn't be out of place. The black majority are simply victims. By not giving a voice to the white perpetrators, Nicholson and Chadwick rob us of a deeper understanding of their hatred, and the conflict at large. It becomes simply us against them, white versus black.

More significantly, this lack of background fails to address the reasons why Mandela remained a poster boy for the ANC during his incarceration, and why the government sought to release this 'dangerous terrorist' early from jail. We see something of the relationship between Nelson and Winnie (the film at its best), but little of that between Mandela and the government or his colleagues like Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo or Ahmed Kathrada. It's an unfortunate choice and the film is much poorer for it.

None the less, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is a rich and crisp production that in its finest moments captures the significance of one man's incredible journey, and his unstoppable fight for the rights of his people. It is a fitting tribute to a remarkable individual who not only altered the course of his nation, but whose ideas and beliefs have gone on to change the world. “The brave man is not one who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”


Previewed at Events Cinema, George St, Sydney, on 28 January 2014



Idris Elba
Naomie Harris
Tony Kgoroge
Deon Lotz

Justin Chadwick

Wiliam Nicholson

South Africa / USA


141 minutes

February 6, 2014
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013) on IMDb
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