Movie Review: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” is about much more than the life of the late South African leader.
It’s a look at how two people who are deeply in love are torn apart, and how one turns to love and peace while in prison, while another turns to anger and bitterness. To the movie’s credit, both trajectories are made to be completely understandable.
Nelson Mandela, as vigorously portrayed by Idris Elba, starts out as a young lawyer who turns to violence in an effort to overthrow the system of apartheid and then ends up in prison, where he returns to nonviolent principles. Upon release after 27 years, he goes on to win election to the South African presidency.
Winnie Mandela (the brilliant Naomie Harris) starts out as a radiant bride who bravely backs the increasing activism of her husband, even though she knows he may be ripped from his family and imprisoned. But as the movie explicitly points out, she, too, was a victim, with police periodically taking her away from her children, torturing her and placing her in solitary confinement. And as she continues her struggles without her husband, she becomes so radicalized that she sees armed insurrection as the only choice.
The decision to construct “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” along these two paths works out well for British director Justin Chadwick and screenwriter William Nicholson, who adapted Mandela’s 1994 autobiography of the same name.
Chadwick, whose previous credits include “The First Grader” and “The Other Boleyn Girl,” manages to capture the magnetism of the two forces of nature who come together in the fight for freedom. And the early scenes of the vibrant young couple make you realize the terrible human cost that Mandela eventually had to pay, growing old in prison while his wife and two daughters dealt with an increasingly dangerous outside world.
Chadwick wisely switches back and forth from Mandela’s experiences in prison to those of his wife. And it helps to break up what would otherwise have been a rather static, stoic story of life behind bars.
Nicholson’s screenplay, meanwhile, does not descend into a preachy lesson on the value of nonviolence. Instead, it plays up the human side of Mandela. And when he leaves prison, it’s not a scene of unadulterated triumph. Rather, Nicholson makes us realize that Mandela and Winnie have grown apart, that the future will be rocky and that love will not conquer all.
In recent weeks, with the death of Mandela, it has been rather common to hear the leader praised as iconic, as something larger than life. But the movie makes Mandela very much a human being, with flaws as well as strengths. The revelation here, however, is that Winnie Mandela gets her due. To many people, she’s certainly less admirable than her husband. But “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” makes her more human, far more than the caricature of an angry woman.
The film isn’t perfect. Since it lasts more than two hours, it has some slow — and low — points. But it’s vitally important to helping us understand one of the most heroic struggles for freedom in the 20th century.