Starring: Idris Elba & Naomie Harris
Available on DVD & Blu-Ray now
It’s an uncanny thing, timing. Perhaps it was inevitable that Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom should have premiered in London last year on the very night that Madiba himself passed away; it was certainly fitting that the DVD and Blu-ray of the film was released almost exactly 20 years to the day since those first democratic elections in South Africa.
Produced by Anant Singh and written by William Nicholson, the famed British novelist and playwright, Long Walk to Freedom is quite a departure from director Justin Chadwick’s previous oeuvre, which includes The Other Boleyn Girl – indeed, it’s hard to think of two films more polar opposite. Engaging, thought-provoking and intelligent, Long Walk to Freedom is ultimately true to its American trailer tagline – ‘The Leader You Know…The Man You Didn’t’.
Whether it’s clever visual tricks, an inherent cyclicality or its refusal to patronise its audience by spoon-feeding them information, Long Walk to Freedom requires that its viewers pay attention. The awe-inspiring tone is set from the start, as we watch Mandela the youth complete his Xhosa manhood ceremony; eagle-eyed viewers will spot the echoes in Mandela’s later struggles for respect on Robben Island. The journey through his life, wives and politicisation continues, which can’t have been as easy a task for Chadwick and Nicholson as it seems. How can you deliver the unexpected, complete the filmmaker’s challenge to be original and controversial, when your subject matter is one of the most famous and important men who ever lived?
Everyone has their own subjective version of South Africa’s first democratically elected President, and Long Walk takes the wise decision to reflect Mandela’s version itself, taken from his 1995 autobiography. Moments such as the ANC’s sabotage campaigns of the early 1960s, Mandela’s attempt to set up negotiations between the ANC and the apartheid government and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s increasingly violent radicalisation are not shied away from.
A biopic such as this needs a strong central cast, and British pair Elba and Harris do not disappoint. Indeed, Elba’s performance is so subtle and nuanced that you begin to forget that he is playing Mandela, and rather start to believe he is simply the man himself. Harris has garnered a lot of praise for her unflinching portrayal of Mandela’s second wife, not least from Winnie herself; with The Guardian reporting that, finally, Winnie “…felt her story had been captured on film.” As a person usually only defined in relation to her husband, it is refreshing to see Long Walk attempt to show Winnie as a woman with many other aspects to her, a woman who, along with her younger daughter Zindzi helped keep the Free Nelson Mandela campaign alive.
None of the supporting cast really stick in the mind, probably because the focus is naturally on Elba and Harris, though Terry Pheto’s subdued Evelyn Mase (Mandela’s first wife) and Lindiwe Matshikiza’s passionate Zindzi Mandela stand out. Mention must be made of Alex Heffes’ incredible score; it really is one of the most stirring soundtracks I’ve heard in a long time. From the irresistible beats of Heffes’ work to the raw shock of archive footage and the poignant portrayal of release, Long Walk to Freedom stays with you after you finish watching.
It’s hard not to feel inspired and motivated by such a movie, and indeed I believe it is worth investing in the Blu-ray release for the extras; I certainly plan to. With a strong cast and confident vision, Chadwick has made a good job of a potentially difficult film. Importantly, Mandela isn’t painted as perfect, but as human. It’s fitting that the movie’s last words should be his own, however. We would all do well to remember them.