To create a biographical film worthy of Nelson Mandela, one of the greatest leaders and social advocates of our time, is no easy task, and director Justin Chadwick falls somewhat short with his well-meaning but not terribly memorable Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Anchored by strong performances from Idris Elba, as Nelson Mandela, and Naomie Harris, as Mandela's second wife, Winnie, the film tackles events from Mandela's youth in the 1920s all the way to his election as President of South Africa in 1994. Like history-hopping The Butler, Chadwick's Mandela is guilty of sign-posting important events, glossing over many others, and connecting the dots in a way that recalls a TV docu-drama. That's not to say the film is unworthy of viewing. The material is adapted from Mandela's own biography, "Long Walk to Freedom," and early scenes showing Mandela as a courtroom attorney and burgeoning revolutionary provide insight into areas of his life typically ignored. Elba doesn't look much like Mandela but he adapts many of his mannerisms, and Harris steals the show as the long-suffering activist and mother of two of Mandela's children.
In one early scene, Mandela defends a young female "native" at trial, confronting her accuser in open court. The white woman is disgusted by Mandela's position of authority and refuses to testify, earning Mandela a dismissal of the charges against his client. I enjoyed this segment, as it sparked a connection to my own profession and dramatized events not normally associated with Mandela's life. Then married to Evelyn Mase (Terry Pheto), Mandela is disgusted by the growing apartheid movement and oppression of black South Africans by the Afrikaners' National Party. He joins his brothers and sisters in peaceful protest until it becomes clear that the governing party is ignoring the people, which causes them to embrace violent confrontation. Shortly after marrying Winnie Madikizela, Mandela is labeled a terrorist and threat to the African National Congress. He is arrested and tried for attempting to overthrow the government. Mandela is found guilty and sent to prison for the next 27 years.
I would have liked a bit more discussion about the politics, colonizing and social climate that led to apartheid, but Mandela only covers the basics of the black/white conflict in scenes that could be mistaken for Civil Rights era clashes in the United States. The focus is on Nelson Mandela and not South Africa, and Chadwick only can dive so deep into the political and social undercarriage of the country in his already lengthy 141-minute film. The most powerful scenes come when Mandela is locked up on Robben Island. Winnie is left alone with a house full of children and faces constant interrogation by local police and government agents. This culminates in Winnie being ripped from her screaming children and thrown into solitary confinement for 18 months. Prison officials heavily edit or destroy any correspondence addressed to Mandela, and over two decades pass before he is able to touch his wife's hands again. Mandela is released from prison in 1990 after new National Party head and South African President F. W. de Klerk finds apartheid politics unsustainable.
Telling Mandela's story requires walking a tightrope between depicting the tremendous injustice inflicted upon Mandela and other black South Africans during apartheid and championing Mandela's unifying message and his hand in rebuilding a fractured society. A theatrical film cannot dive too deeply into individual markers on Mandela's walk, but Mandela does hit enough of the highlights to be an effective summary of Mandela's life. I wish Chadwick and his cast had explored this material as an HBO miniseries, dedicating several hours to each segment of Mandela's life as depicted in this film. Elba and Harris are commendable here, and my biggest criticism of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is that it casts too wide a net to make a memorable catch.
Anchor Bay's 2.40:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer looks incredible throughout, something that is immediately evident in the stylized opening scene that depicts a young Mandela walking through high grass. Each blade is visible in expert clarity and texture, and accompanying wide shots of the beautiful African prairie are razor sharp and miles deep. Fine-object detail is impressive, and close-ups reveal intimate facial details and every bit of dirt, grime and hardship worn by Mandela and Winnie. Shadow detail is excellent, skin tones are accurate and colors are perfectly saturated. There are absolutely no issues with compression anomalies or digital noise reduction.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is effective, with solid surround action and effects separation. Dialogue is clean and presented without hiss or distortion. Ambient effects fill the surround speakers, and the subwoofer supports several violent clashes and the slam of cell doors. The score resonates appropriately, and the track is equally impressive when presenting action elements and quiet, dialogue-driven scenes. A Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is also included, as are English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc "combo pack" includes the Blu-ray, a DVD copy of the film and a code to redeem an UltraViolet HD digital copy. The discs are packed into a Blu-ray eco-case. Extras include an informative Commentary by Justin Chadwick and Mandela: The Leader You Know, The Man You Didn't (22:04/HD), which is not as enlightening as its name suggests. Also included are several production featurettes: Production Design (6:51/HD), Costumes and Make-Up (8:45/HD), Special Effects (7:09/HD), and Music and Sound (7:34/HD). Things wrap up with a Tribute Video Gallery (16:20 total/HD).
Adequately crafted and nicely acted, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a good film hampered by its somewhat shallow, history hopping look at Nelson Mandela's life. Justin Chadwick directs Idris Elba, who makes a convincing Mandela, and the film moves from Mandela's childhood through his 27 years in prison to his ultimate election as South Africa's first black chief executive. Tackling so much history in one film necessitates some sign-posting, but this undercuts the film's ultimate impact. The film is worth viewing but the replay value is limited. Rent It.