Director: Justin Chadwick
Cast: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge
The Indian Express rating: ***
Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom has figured in public memory and conscience for far too long to call for a hagiography. However, this film produced by Anant Singh and based on the South African leader’s autobiography by the same name, treats its subject with that delicate reverence, bathing him in drippling sunlight and framing him more than once as a heroic figure against scenic backdrops of his loved land. It sacrifices small details for a rushed narrative, and a deeper understanding for a biopic that touches upon the many chapters of Mandela’s eventful life without touching anything closely.
This applies most strongly to the beginning of the film, which strains itself to establish Mandela as a ladies man and ambitious attorney. There are several encounters with eager young women, even as Mandela’s drafting into the African National Congress and politics isn’t treated with the same loving detail. Elba is a natural here, sweeping into a room and sweeping it away with the force of his personality.
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The next few events in Mandela’s life, from rising racial tensions, to his womanising, to his separation from his first wife, are dealt with in quick succession before the film again takes an awkward pause as his relationship with Winnie Madikizela (Harris) begins. It’s a slow and sweet romance, unlike all that’s happening around them.
Mandela (itals), one can say, really comes into its own when the incarceration in Robben Island begins and what was once a small struggle for freedom in another European-ruled colony acquired global dimensions. The film was shot on real location, and even though it may seem too neat for that, it tries to give a sense of what being locked up in a place for 27 years — “without ever touching a woman or child again”, “without ever getting off the island” — could mean. That famous window in the cell where Mandela would remain for 18 years reveals a tiny shelf to keep one’s possessions, a drum for a toilet, bedding on the ground and a small surface serving as a table. Something dies in Mandela the first time he walks in, and Elba conveys that nicely.
If the film does better with its quieter moments, this is also obvious in the two visits to Mandela at the prison, once by Winnie and once by a daughter he hasn’t seen in 11 years. The outside world, where Winnie driven by her hatred for all that the South African government has done to them has been inciting violence and inviting harsh prison time for herself, is again a series of montages with little coherence.
Mandela (itals) again picks up in the final negotiations to end apartheid in South Africa when Elba brings forth a man old in age but hardly in spirit, fighting perhaps his most difficult battle, for peace, against popular wishes. You can feel a leader taking his last stand, bolstered by conviction alone, and Elba gets the gait, mannerisms just right. However, the screenplay has no space for Mandela’s loyal aides who sacrificed as much as him, particularly Walter Sisulu (Kgoroge), who saw himself sidelined as the leader of the group. The film only hints at the disagreements as Mandela decides to begin talks with the F W de Clerk government, again skipping what remained unknown for things largely known.
One character who shines through despite the film’s complete focus on its main protagonist is Harris as Winnie. Even more than her loving and eventually distant husband, it is she who brings forth Winnie’s journey forcefully, as first a girl enamoured of a rising political star and her position in his life, to a woman finding her own feet, to a leader left behind when history took a turn.