Mandela: Long walk to Freedom
Directed by Justin Chadwick
Starring Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela, with Naomie Harris as Winnie Madikizela
Running time: 146 minutes
There’s a heart wrenching scene in Fred Zinneman’s classic 1966 film “A Man for all Seasons” where Sir Thomas More’s family have been sent to try persuade More to swear to the Oath of Accession and thus ensure his release from The Tower of London. With reference to the dreary place that is his cell, and fighting back overwhelming emotion, More tries make light of his separation from his loved ones and quips:
“Except it’s keeping me from you, my dears, it’s not so bad. Remarkably like any other place.”
More would eventually lose his head for standing by his beliefs. A fate narrowly avoided by the title character in Justin Chadwick’s bio-pic “Mandela: Long walk to Freedom”.
Chadwick’s film of the life of Nelson Mandela uses a similar tack. It’s not simply a documentary, recounting the events of Mandela’s life and times in a segregated South Africa, but rather an insight into the person and the emotional effects on his life as events over take him and he becomes bound up in the fate of a nation struggling for freedom.
Idris Elba plays Mandela deftly, and with great compassion reveals the Mandela’s life journey. We travel from his childhood home in a rural village, through to his meeting Winnie Madikizela, ably played by Naoimie Harris, and on to marriage, children and his practice as a lawyer in a segregated South Africa.
Mandela might‘ve had a fairly privileged life but that all changed when he was persuaded to join the African National Congress, the ANC. Increasingly angered by the brutality of the apartheid system Mandela, becomes a political agitator and publicly renounces any cooperation with the authorities by burning his identity papers. His activities mean he has to go underground, hiding out in safehouses. Things changed dramatically after the Sharpesville massacre in 1960, when 69 unarmed black protestors, including children, were mowed down by the police. It was a catalyst that saw Mandela finally embrace an armed struggle and ultimately would lead to his arrest, with a cadre of ANC colleagues, and indictment for treason.
Rather than risk the men becoming martyrs, the judge decides not to sentence them to death but rather to life in prison on the notorious Robben Island. William Nicholson’s script, based on Mandela’s autobiography of the same name, wonderfully describes the slow pain of years slipping glacially by as he struggles with the emotions of missing his children growing up, and the funeral of his eldest son tragically killed in an accident.
For the people of South Africa, Nelson Mandela becomes the near mythical lightning rod of the anti-apartheid movement, and his cause becomes a global campaign. In his absence Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is increasingly involved in the armed struggle and after several incarcerations and physical abuse at the hands of the authorities she becomes deeply embittered. Winnie’s deep seated anger causes her to become disenchanted with her husband’s decision to renounce violence and follow the path of peaceful negotiations and they ultimately separate. She does however join him on that fateful day in February 1990 when, after 27 years detention, Nelson Mandela was released from Victor Verster Prison
Ultimately, under the crippling weight of international sanctions, the last white President of South Africa, F.W. De Klerk, well played by Gys de Villiers, accepts that the apartheid system is unsustainable. He quickly moves to implement reforms and works with the ANC and other organisations with the goal of dismantling the system and delivering full free democratic elections. Mandela is momentously elected as South Africa’s first black President.
Although well over two hours long, the film seamlessly carries the audience through a roller coaster of emotions and leaves you more than a little drained by the end. Chadwick’s impeccable use of the camera and lighting draws you into every scene and engages you at each step of the journey, making you invest personally in the narrative. The sweeping beauty of the South African countryside is also used to great visual effect as we follow the story to it’s conclusion.
Topped off with U2’s Oscar nominated original song ‘Ordinary Love’ – “Mandela: Long walk to Freedom” is an absolute superb film, you really must see.
© David Wilkins – March 2014
Available for download from The Apple iStore from April 28th, HD version €13.99.