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Adapted directly from the great man's own autobiography, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is an epic story given a reverential treatment and beautiful visuals. Those already familiar with the life and times of Nelson Mandela will find no surprises and may actually be put off by the somewhat superficial treatment. That's to expected considering that Long Walk covers over fifty years of history, following Mandela from his time as a young lawyer in Johannesburg, to the day that he becomes president of his country.
Director Justin Chadwick sees to it that the movie looks attractive at all times, including many of the scenes taking place within the Sophiatown slums. What keeps the show focused are the performances of the leading actors Idris Elba and Naomie Harris. They convey the spirit of resistance at a time when social justice in South Africa seemed completely out of reach. Although neither is a really good match for their real-life counterparts, they age into the roles particularly well. Reversing the usual pattern for epic biographies, Nelson and Winnie Mandela impress us most when they're supposed to be well into old age. Their subtle makeup is very well done.
William Nicholson's screenplay hops, skips and jumps through Mandela's life, always keeping his opposition to apartheid at the forefront. We first meet the busy young attorney Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba) in the 1940s, when his goal is to simply become a wealthy man. Mandela resists the entreaties of the outlawed ANC (African National Congress) activists until he finds his cases compromised by the racist police and judiciary. The death at police hands of a drunken friend is one stimulus that brings Mandela into the political arena, rallying non-violent protests and mini-strikes against the government. In 1948 apartheid becomes the official policy for the oppression of the black majority. Mandela finds his second wife in Winifred (Naomie Harris), a nurse who appreciates and encourages his political activities. But constant harassment during the '50s becomes rougher, until Mandela is a wanted man. A militant wing of the ANC turns to violent protest, and Nelson is eventually rounded up with several other leaders. Under international pressure to prove their leniency, the government drops the death penalty and sentences the men to life on a penal island. Mandela is powerless to protect Wini and his children from police persecution; his communication with the outside is cut off almost entirely. He eventually spends 27 years in prison, until events in the 1990s becomes so difficult for the South African President De Klerk (Gys de Villiers) that the government begins to look for a way to compromise with the ANC. The only problem is that Mandela has no intention of compromising, ever.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom has its scenes of hardship, brutality and killing, yet in general the story of South Africa's great liberator has had many rough edges smoothed away. We're not saying that they ever wavered, but neither Nelson nor Winnie show the slightest hint that they might question their goals -- this is the kind of 'noble deeds by noble people' story that can't help but seem a bit sanitized. The white cops and prison guards are savage pigs, with the famed exception of the one warder who befriends Nelson. We see no hint of minority white support for the ANC. It's all from Nelson Mandela's point of view as a wise man looking for the right path for his countrymen.
Frankly, the show comes across as a dramatized documentary with a very crowded agenda. Each scene carefully makes it point before the wheels of history move on. Some space is set aside for Mandela's personal life. We see Winnie change from faithful optimism, to dedicated activism, to a militant presence that her own husband feels is counterproductive. Meanwhile, Mandela loses a son and a mother while in prison, but finds out that his daughter is a dedicated politico eager to follow in his footsteps. The actors' skills are tested when the script sets aside only sixty seconds or so for the marital problems that crop up when Nelson is finally freed. After so many years of living alone, restarting a physical relationship is not an easy to do.
As we might expect from the autobiography of the extraordinarily humanist Mandela, the show puts the white South African leadership and the ministers that attempt to negotiate with him in the most positive light possible. The moment that Mandela becomes a privileged prisoner, his guards and cops are no longer depicted in such vicious terms. Although the voiceovers and news bulletins used to exposit historical details talk about white fear and loathing, the movie almost makes it seem as if all this apartheid grief could have been cleared up a lot sooner. A bit of explanation will be needed when showing the film to children.
The movie is honest when it shows black-on-black sectarian violence tearing the country apart while President De Klerk wrings his hands. It's the most violent episode save for a police massacre of protesters in the earlier part of the film that launches the ANC militant actions. The film conveys well Nelson Mandela's modern diplomatic miracle: he guides South Africa to a majority-rule democracy without an armed coup or a civil war. How often does that happen in this blood-soaked world?
We like the performances and the movie's heart is in the right place, even if it sometimes comes across as an illustrated lecture. Yet the movie is a good telling of the story of a great man. For viewers interested in a really challenging movie on this subject, I recommend the secretly filmed Come Back, Africa - The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Volume 2 . It was filmed in Sophiatown in 1957 and 1958, and shows the full truth of life for blacks under apartheid.
The Weinstein Company and Anchor Bay's Blu-ray + DVD + Ultraviolet of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a widescreen encoding of this attractively filmed show. The period recreations are well done, and the picture's many excursions into idealized images -- open hills, Nelson's manhood ceremony, his dream visions of Winnie while in prison -- make for some very pretty pictures.
Anchor Bay's extras can enlarge one's appreciation of the late Nelson Mandela. The leading featurette contrasts the public and private lives of the leader. Four featurettes look at different aspects of the production, with plenty of EPK-style footage filmed on the set. Six or seven notables that knew Mandela, such as Dan Rather and Al Gore, offer video tributes to the man. Director Justin Chadwick explains the making of the film and his creative aims on a full-length audio commentary.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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