Thursday, 16 January 2014

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

The Long Boer

Can Idris Elba succeed where Morgan Freeman, Terrence Howard and many more have fallen? Despite a gusty and adventurously masculine performance from its star, the great man who inspired this biopic remains an elusive figure. Far from being someone to shirk a challenge, I daresay Elba accepted a Herculean, nay impossible, labour when he accepted the role of South Africa’s saviour. Based on his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom can be remembered as an effective, yet flawed and sentimental, tribute to the late Nelson Mandela.

Amidst the turmoil of a country ridden by the greatest institutional evil, an idealistic lawyer is drawn into the struggle against Apartheid. As political tension escalates, Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba) becomes a subversive revolutionary against the white supremacist regime. Condemned to life imprisonment on Robben Island, his family and political allies are robbed of his lov
e and leadership. But after 27 years behind bars Mandela walks free, leading his country on the road to liberty, reconciliation and free elections.

Hollywood biopics, no matter how virtuous their intentions, rarely emerge as worthwhile endeavours. Formulaic studio scripts have neither the time nor inclination to develop a complete character study of their inspirational figure. Lincoln worked because it condensed its narrative to a few pivotal months in Abe’s life. If only Long Walk to Freedom had followed the same structure.

After a relatively protracted length of sequences we are still no closer to understanding the real Mandela. The highlight-jumping script leaves little space to ask his character basic questions like ‘how?’ and ‘why?’. Even his tortured marriage to Winnie (Naomie Harris), which forms the main bulk of the total film, is absent of any contentiousness or emotional complexity.

Rather than forming deep personal ambiguities, William Nicholson has apparently written a screenplay for GCSE students. With the exception of a brief interlude depicting Sharpeville, little of the political and social evils of Apartheid are explored. International sanctions, the ANC’s military campaign and the white government are all given mere cameo appearances. In fact, the entire de Klerk regime is summed up by the president grimacing at a TV screen.

Considering the convenient timing of its release, the production process may well have been rushed or perhaps too distracted by the recent obituaries of Mandela to really study his personality against the consensus. Either way the end product represents a significant waste.

Nevertheless, the scattered moments which are deemed worthy of focus convey a powerful and emotive message. The best moments are those in which the film becomes justifiably angry. For instance, as Winnie emerges from the courthouse where her husband has been given a life sentence, her cry of “Amandla!” creates a stirring demonstration of defiance. Indeed, throughout the movie Harris defies her petite stature to burn with a furious inferno. Without her input of vengeful hatred, the Shawshank section on Robben Island would have dragged, despite Elba’s sombre performance.

If it were not for 12 Years a Slave my opinions may have been more favourable. In contrast to the naked viciousness of Steve McQueen’s Oscar contender, Long Walk to Freedom feels meeker than its subject matter deserves.  

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