Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom ★★★★ (Directed by Justin Chadwick)
A true life-lesson in rising above oppression with a compassionate heart.
Starring: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Mark Elderkin, Robert Hobbs, Theo Landey and Grant Swanby
Written by William Nicholson, based on the autobiography Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela.
Biography, drama, true story. 2hr 27mins. M for violence and offensive language.
With biopics, there’s a fine line between an actor capturing the essence of a real life figure and committing an awkward caricature impersonation.
Statuesque Nelson Mandela, with his distinctive rasping voice and loping stride is sadly ripe for the latter in a lesser actor’s hands.
But in Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, based on the autobiography of the South African freedom fighter and president, the task of recreating one of the 20th century’s great heroes was given to British actor Idris Elba, and the results are fairly stunning.
Following Mandela’s life from his early days as a lawyer in Johannesburg, through his radicalisation, incarceration and eventual freedom, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is less about of exposing hidden or forgotten truths than honouring Mandela’s strength and message of peace.
Elba tackles this with a truck load of dignity and emotional intelligence, recreating events that at times beggar belief.
From the distance of 25 years and our relatively progressive country it’s easy to forget how hideous and utterly irrational Apartheid was.
In this crucible of hate, young Nelson Mandela defied the constant brow beating of racist segregation to become a leader in the resistance and eventual dismantling of this oppressive regime.
Although the film itself is no more gruesome than the evening news, Long Walk To Freedom doesn’t flinch in showing the horrors of Apartheid.
It is difficult to watch at times.
But it was this senseless, often unprovoked violence that eventually galvanised Mandela to join the African National Congress, a fledgling resistance group.
Mandela’s defiance, which included sabotage, lead to his arrest and a life-time sentence on isolated Robben Island with hard labour.
It also meant constant hounding for his wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, played by Brit rising star Naomie Harris, and his young daughters.
In Long Walk To Freedom, the depiction of Madikizela-Mandela’s 16 month incarceration and torture is grueling.
Harris plays Madikizela-Mandela as a harder, more brutal woman, after this.
And while it doesn’t justify Madikizela-Mandela’s later actions calling for a war on whites, it certainly explains them.
In Idris Elba’s hands, Mandela’s compassion and calm throughout his incarceration contrasts sharply with Madikizela-Mandela’s violence and agitation outside.
It makes Mandela’s ability to find peace and forgiveness for his oppressors after everything they’d taken from him all the more astounding for how understandable, if deplorable, Madikizela-Mandela’s actions were.
While the political and social ‘‘justifications’’ – read , delusions – for Apartheid are never really discussed, white revulsion at people of colour is frequently, disturbingly shown.
Throughout these exchanges, Elba’s Mandela is a beacon of quiet resistance, and ‘‘rising above’’, letting the bigotry slide off him like muck down a drain.
In one scene he stops his young grandsons from taunting white police officers with rude names.
‘‘That’s what they do to us,’’ he tells them. ‘‘We have to be better than them.’’
He then introduces the boys to the police by name, protecting for his jailers the humanity they have denied him for 27 years.
It’s truly inspirational.
And that’s the gift at the heart of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, the way Elba captures Mandela’s trade mark good humour, gentleness and above all, compassion: a true life-lesson in rising above your oppressors.