“It is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
From the very first shot of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, you already know what the last will be. This is incredibly indicative of the film as a whole, which plays like a two-and-a-half-hour example from a ‘Biopic for Dummies’ book, so much so that I was guessing the moment where the above quote would be said.
The first problem that Mandela faces though is its ambition. In a similar vein to The Butler, another Weinstein biopic of 2013, the filmmakers have tried to pack in nearly 60 years worth of massive historical events into 2.5 hours, which will fail in any case.Mandela, however, has the additional challenge of making a film about an almost god-like historical figure. How does one make an unbiased film about a person that is so loved and admired?
Well, as it turns out, you can’t really. The result is a run-of-the-mill Weinstein biopic that is incredibly flat, clinical, and unengaging; that plays like a timeline you put together at primary school, merely scratching the surface of events and checking them off the ‘To Mention’ list. The filmmakers are basically going through a criteria sheet, making sure all the requirements for a film of a historical figure are satisfied:
– Show the humble and simple beginnings of his youth, his roots? Check.
– His former profession? Check.
– The ‘turning point’ in his view and life? Check.
– Some riots to show escalating hardship? Check.
– Some womanising? Check.
– Throwing in some token flaws to make him look ‘human’? Check.
…you get the picture.
The result is a film that has way too much packed in, just skimming over every event and bypassing exploration of a topic, focussing the film on a handful of interesting aspects (Winnie’s necklace, Nelson’s house arrest, his campaign, his relationship with his son), favouring packing more in over becoming in-depth. Luckily, it improves on what the first half-hour seems to be heading towards, which is a horribly edited, disjointed, jumpy, frenetic montage of Mandela as a lawyer, then participating in some riots and being a ‘real’ person, that had me completely lost.
There are some positives though. Naomie Harris and Idris Elba do the best they can and give great performances- Harris highlighting Winnie’s destructive pursuits and Elba showing Nelson’s calm perseverance. The photography is also pretty good (SO MUCH LENS FLARE), showing all the wide open, rolling hills, amber sun, and revolution with a soaring viewpoint.
When push comes to shove, Mandela isn’t a bad film, it is rather an unremarkable one. It doesn’t attempt to do anything different to any previous film of its type, just goes by the numbers, note for note, rarely lingering on a moment to let the weight of it sink in (bar the sentencing scene, Dave’s review [http://letterboxd.com/davecrewe/film/mandela-long-walk-to-freedom/] has some great thoughts on that, check it out!). The story of Nelson Mandela is an incredibly broad, heroic, and awe-inspiring one that deserves to get the in-depth treatment it deserves, instead of the 2.5 hour ‘crash course’ version. Sadly, not all the sun-dappled, sweeping landscapes and towering performances in the world can save this incredibly predictable, shallow, uninvolving one-trick pony.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom received a wide release in Australia on February 6.
M (mature themes, violence, and coarse language), 141 mins/147 mins (it was classified twice, given the same rating, but had six minutes cut out. Interesting…).