Toronto Review: Mandela Long Walk to Freedom

“Elba gives yet another astounding performance, getting both the physicality and the voice just right without veering into mere impression.”

Surrounded by racism and segregation in South Africa and following the death of a friend, an idealistic Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba) is spurned on to do something against the oppressive apartheid standing up to fight against the repression and inequality that riddles South Africa.

Mandela is labelled a hero by many and a terrorist by those in power as he and his free thinking colleagues fight back to make their voices heard by any means necessary. But lives are lost and eventually they are put on trial and sentenced to life imprisonment. As the world beyond the prison walls changes, not always for the better Mandela endures often inhumane treatment for the next 27 years while incarcerated. Outside of his cell his wife Winnie (Naomie Harris) and their young family continue to deal with the hostile and often heavy handed authorities. But through all their struggles, pain and tragedy eventually Mandela helps to shape a new dawn for his country.

Condensing a lifetime into the three act structured bio-pic is a difficult enough challenge for most screenwriters. But when the subject in question is someone as significant and revered as Nelson Mandela it is hardly a surprise to know that William Nicholson spent 16 years and over 30 drafts to get his script just right.

Although it does take occasional but often necessary creative liberties with events Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, based on his autobiography this is the closest thing to an approved telling of his remarkable life story.

At 139 minuets, it feels short considering the film barley scratches the surface of many of the chapters in Mandela’s life. Rather than focus on a specific portion the film looks at the changes of the man from the young legal eagle cunning enough to use deep rooted national prejudices to win cases, quickly shifting to being part of a single minded collective determined to be heard to eventually someone that attempted to unite the country with his leadership.

Free of flashy visuals Justin Chadwick’s direction is a straight forward matter of fact affair ensuring the film paints an even handed but noticeable unsugar coated portrait of the man behind the history. Elba gives yet another astounding performance, getting both the physicality and the voice just right without veering into mere impression. Equally Harris excels as the strong willed Winnie who doesn’t always get treated as well in other dramatic reconstructions. The supporting cast are great giving a real authenticity to the recreated historical landscape.

The trouble with important movies is sometimes the mere importance overshadows any criticism and while there is little wrong with the film as a whole, certain representations of moments in Mandela’s life are short changed or condensed to such an extent they occasionally lack the magnitude they deserve. Making the biggest problem with Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom it just doesn’t really do justice to the titular icon.

Where other less worthy, more fantastical stories like the Hobbit or The Hunger Games are stretched to two or three very long big screen adaptations, one modestly budgeted above standard length movie is more a sad sign of where the popcorn chomping masses would apparently prefer to spend their cash. The film should simply be seen as a good introduction for those unaware of the bloody and awful history of apartheid that continues to echo today.

Though sadly still present in these apparently more sophisticated times, racism in all its horrendous forms is currently being put onto film a lot. Predominantly in historical dramas and where this film succeeds in its showing of the unforgivable way black men, women and children were mistreated not in the distant past of way back when but within living memory.

In conclusion, a very well put together bio-pic that should serve well as an introduction for those unaware of the impact Mandela had on the world.

About the Author

Allan Wood is a Film Critic for TFM.

Review Venue: Scotiabank Theatre | Review Event: Toronto Film Festival P&I Screening | Screening Date: September 7th, 2013

Posted in Festivals, Movies, Reviews, Toronto Film Festival, Toronto Reviews 2013