Directed by: Justin Chadwick
Produced by: Anant Singh
David M. Thompson
Screenplay by: William Nicholson
Based on: Long Walk To Freedom by Nelson Mandela
Starring: Idris Elba
Music by: Alex Heffes
Cinematography by: Low Crawley
Editing by: Rick Russell
Studio(s): Imagenation Abu Dhabi
Distributed by: The Weinstein Company
Release date(s): September 7, 2013 (Toronto International Film Festival)
November 28, 2013 (South Africa)
December 25, 2013 (United States)
January 3, 2014 (United Kingdom)
Running time: 146 minutes
Country(s): United Kingdom
Production budget: $35 million
Box-office revenue (as of publication): $14, 267, 217
This review is brought to you in collaboration with Dio and Holy Diver. So, seeing as how I was still reviewing movies for December nearly half way through January, I've decided to do a bumper edition for the review of the month and put the two together. As such, though it's not set in stone, what I might do is a top five and bottom five review for that, after, of course, all the many many movies I've got to see with this being mad Oscar season and all. In that regard, I've also been working on both my best and the worst of 2013 and this year's inductees into my hall of fame, so, for all the latest and greatest in the movies, keep your eyes posted!
Today's movie up for review is Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, a biopic that takes it's base from the 1995 book of the same name by the recently deceased anti-apartheid revolutionary and former South African President Nelson Mandela. Since the man's death last month, there has been an outcry of support and tributes from various people, but call a cynic, personally I am worried that people are starting to adopt Mandela as a token political icon, the way that loads of people wear Che Guevara t-shirts without knowing what the guy was all about. As such, though Mandela's death around the time of the release of the biopic is purely coincidental (this was released the week before his death, for those who want to make any tenuous links), at this time, I feel it to be crucial that we get a well-rounded, definitive film about Mandela's life. Directed by Justin Chadwick, who has worked on television projects since the early 90's such as Bleak House and on two previous pictures, The Other Boleyn Girl and The First Grader, Mandela stars Idris Elba of Luther fame in the title role over the course of fifty-two years, from 1942 to 1994, as the film chronicles much of Mandela's life. Got it? Good!
Starting with the good, it's an undeniably large pair of shoes to fill, but Idris Elba gives a truly transcendent performance in the title role. Obviously, in terms of physical stature, Elba is a bigger man than Mandela, but he uses his size to fill a space the way the real Mandela's presence obviously could, and more importantly he captures the spirit of the man. Going past mere impersonation (which he does note-perfectly, incidentally) and getting the voice down on tape, Elba does just meld into the part, and it's obvious that he spent a lot of time and effort making this performance one of real complexity. Furthermore, although I'm sure the make-up had a part in this, Elba ages wonderfully over the course of the film, fundamentally playing the same man, but giving him little subtle changes over the course of time. The film may have it's faults (more of which in due time), but of all the things that are brought to the table, Elba's performance deserves due praise. Also, we have a terrific supporting role from Naomi Harris, who plays his second wife Winnie Mandela. In the past, there have been attempts to capture Winnie's story, but interestingly, in this movie about her late husband, Harris gives us the best Winnie Mandela to date. Even though I have seen her in numerous films over the years, I didn't recognise her, for she plays the part of the firecracker and high-spirited Winnie so well. She is more than able to stand up to Elba's powerful performance, and that in itself is quite worthy of merit without the extra mile too goes. As I've mentioned already, the make-up/hair departments have done a fine job in making the characters, particularly that of Mandela, age well. This isn't just some hamburger/play-do job that you sometimes get on these big movies that span a long period of time, it is minimal and appropriate to both the actor playing the part and the timescale of the story. Never once did I go, "hmm, well that's some tacky make-up," it all looked legitimate. Finally (and this is a long finally!), the overall scale of the production is something to be behold. The production design and the costumes over the course of the fifty year span of the film consistently fit the period, and the staging of the various mass gatherings that are reenacted for the film are brilliantly choreographed. This isn't a special-effects movie, and in no right world should it be, but we do feel the genuine size of the production and go "cor, blimey," that is breathtaking. Furthermore, this is one of those movies that wisely ensures we can see every bit of it, and it is beautifully shot and edited by Low Crawley and Rick Russell, who respectively do their earnest to held play their part in telling the story. I can't deny the fact that this is a movie which, at best is a highly impressive picture, and I'm sure that it will be very affecting for audiences who do see it. Indeed, at the screening I attended with my folks at the Queens Film Theatre, people were crying, my mother and sister both loved it and it was given a round of applause upon finishing, which is something most pictures do not get on these isles (it's more an American tradition, definitely, whereas ours is usually pursed lips!). I too was impressed by the picture and thus my review will be a positive one.
However, despite these things that I liked about Mandela and that it is an undeniably impressive movie, there are still a number of problems which deny it from being a truly great film. As I mentioned in the contextual/synopsis paragraph, now is the time I feel it is vital for a truly well-rounded depiction of Mandela's story, and while we have a game performance from Idris Elba, the overall movie is still lacking that extra push it needs. The central problem of the film is the fact that in every department it is so concerned with portraying a great man that it often looks past any other side of the story. I would personally describe the film as having 'politically correct politics,' in that it posits challenging issues, but never genuinely confronts them. Not once was there any explicit act of racism (the n-word is noticeably absent) or violence that lingers on the consequences of such misdeeds, the film remaining in this constant stasis of neutrality. The script is the thing affected most by this. Though Elba portrays him brilliantly, the weaknesses of Mandela himself are never fully explored. Extra-marital affairs take up about thirty seconds of screen time, and at about ten minutes, his first marriage to Evelyn Mase has to be the quickest thirteen years I've ever witnessed. Not once are we let into Mandela, who even at the learning of his son's death, is shown to be impenetrable and strong. At one point, Mandela shows up at a local cinema (a pet peeve, I for the most part loath that 'movie within a movie' reflexivity gimmick), interrupting the movie and delivering a protest speech, and the whole audience is up in arms, on their feet chanting in unison their support. Maybe this is the inner cynic, but I think if political agitators were to do that in the middle of a movie, most people would tell them to sit down and shut up, regardless of what they say. I thought about this, going "would I do that if it was David Bowie?," and while my answer was "he'd be too modest to do that," I concluded that I would most definitely. The score too by Alex Heffes works in this way. It's one of those Emotional Heartstrings Orchestra score's that say to your subconscious "isn't this grand and glorious, how courageous, how wonderful, how rabble-rousing," but thankfully, although I'm hardly a wizard, I know when I can see through a spell that is being poorly cast. I've often compared the art of cinema to magic, for though I'm in a position where I can see the illusion(s), if it is done well, I can still let myself go and enjoy it. This score however doesn't do it for me. Finally, though he does well for the most part as a director, Chadwick too seems to be unable to see past the two-dimensionality of their story. He's the puppet-master here, and as such he seems content to let this version of Mandela pass for the real thing. It's doubtless praiseworthy and I feel good about it, but the movie is at worst highly propagandistic, especially when you've got rabble-rousing speeches and a score along the side like something out of Independence Day going on (sorry, Bill Pullman). When I call a movie propagandistic, that's not just high-fallutin rhetoric, one of the specialist genres is Soviet Propaganda films from the 1920s-1950s, so believe me when I say it!
Speaking of high-fallutin rhetoric, although I'm not exactly corroborating myself, I see no need to do so, and more importantly, though I do see this as propagandistic, two-dimensional, relatively unoriginal, full of politically correct politics and indeed not the definitive article on Nelson Mandela the man, I still feel largely positive about the film. Idris Elba is transcendent in the lead role, and Naomi Harris too is a standout as Winnie Mandela. Also, the make-up/hair departments do a subtle, minimalist job in appropriately ageing these people over a long period of time. Finally, as a whole the production is splendid, that of real scale and scope, shot and edited well, capturing if not the definitive real article that we need, then at least a fragment of the spirit's essence.
The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 6.7/10
The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Stoked, likesay (one of the quickest reviews I've done in a while. There's a lot to say about this movie, whether you like it or not)