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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

A great man, to be sure, but is it a great movie? I'll give you a clue... no, it isn't. 

Like the Great Man himself, there is plenty to admire about Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom, but quite unlike him, it largely fails to live up to expectations and ends up as something surprisingly forgettable and disappointingly ordinary.

Justin Chadwick, a British director who is no stranger to making films about and around Africa (First Grader) and, as befits this film's subject matter, is particularly adept at drawing out plenty of emotion from whatever story he's telling. Add to that a very solid cast, comprising both local and international talent, and a story that is pretty much incredible by default, as it depicts the life one of the most extraordinary figures in modern history, and it's not hard to see why so many people are won over by Long Walk to Freedom.

Indeed, even though I am largely underwhelmed by the film, it's impossible to deny how moving it sometimes is, how great Idris Elba is in the title role (he may not look at all like Madiba, but he captures him brilliantly on every other level), how interesting and sympathetic Winnie Mandela comes across for a change and, once again, how one-in-a-billion a person Nelson Mandela truly is. As such, while I certainly wouldn't agree with some of the more laudatory notices the film has received, I certainly don't agree with the one- and two-star reviews either.

Unfortunately, while the sheer awesomeness of the Mandela story may go some way towards clouding one's critical facilities, it's impossible not to notice what is by far the film's biggest failing. The film's occasional cornball moments and its sometimes cheap emotional manipulation are fairly easy crimes to forgive in a film this unashamedly populist, but it's far, far harder to get past how shallow the film feels.

By trying to fit both such a long book and such an event filled life into a single 139-minute movie, The Long Walk to Freedom ends up with some major pacing issues, as it feels both too long and too short at the same time. Worse even than that though, the film also ends up loses any sense of complexity and nuance as it tries to cram a substantial amount of information into so relatively short a running time and ends up as far less intriguing and far less involving than it really ought to be. The first forty years of Madiba's life, in particular, feel especially rushed and the events that lead to his arrest feel surprisingly under-explored.

It's especially unfortunate that we don't really get to understand what makes Nelson Mandela as a man tick. The film gestures towards crucial moments in his life like the way he was raised by a very empathetic mother or how his relationship with a white guard informed how almost supernaturally forgiving a leader he ended up being, but it always feels like something is missing - be it a greater insight into the man himself or even the complexities that arose out of the decidedly uncomplex evil of the Apartheid government.

It's especially strange that while Mandela himself is woefully underdeveloped - and the less said about the vast majority of the supporting characters, the better - we get an insight into Winnie Mandela that makes her later... unpleasantness more understandable, even more sympathetic, than ever before. If only the same level of detail could have been applied to her husband as well.

Had The Long Walk to Freedom been, say, an HBO miniseries by the same team or had Chadwick focused purely on a single portion of Mandela's life for the film, it could easily have been something truly excellent. As it is, it's boring, under-developed and disappointing every bit as often as it is poignant, beautifully observed and expertly told. It's educational, I suppose, but, aside for the fact that it really should be more than that, it's only educational in the way that reading the cliff notes of a classic work of literature is educational. You get the drift, but the greatness is sadly missing.

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