Monday, December 9, 2013

'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom' (2013) directed by Justin Chadwick

The fortuitously timed release of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom must have Harvey Weinstein rubbing his palms with glee.  What better publicity could a film have than wall-to-wall global media idolisation of its subject?  The public couldn't be more emotionally primed for this movie to come out - everyone wants this to be good.  Director Justin Chadwick is standing in front of an open goal, all he's got left to do is boot the ball in.

Mercifully, Mandela turns out to be pretty good.  Chadwick sticking as closely as possible to the template laid out by Richard Attenborough's Gandhi. Both films follow the political, emotional and spiritual development of men who possess an intangible greatness.  Both films feature powerhouse performances from actors at the top of their game, both have an itch for majestically sweeping panoramas and both track their subject over the the course of many years.  Even more specifically, both Gandhi and Mandela have scenes where men burn South African ID papers, both have a barrister lead and courtroom scenes and both feature white soldiers shooting into unarmed crowds.  

Mandela is no Gandhi, but then few films are.  Tackling this is an enormous undertaking for Justin Chadwick, who is primarily a television director.  I don't exactly envy his job; this subject matter carries with it an intense weight and importance, an audience who wants to see 'their' Mandela rather than have their preconceptions challenged. With that in mind, Chadwick can be partly forgiven for playing it safe: the resulting film an inspirational biopic-by-numbers with a directorial style so bland it's practically invisible. This isn't the critical blow it might be, Chadwick's workmanlike style at least helps accentuate the quality of the two performances that anchor the film.

Idris Elba has been a favourite of mine since his star-making turn as the analytical economist crack-dealer Stringer Bell in The Wire.  He has the rare quality of being able to 'think' on screen, which is far more difficult than it sounds.  Practically every scene of the film features some kind of development in Mandela's philosophy, so the burden on Elba's shoulders is to show his character believably processing all this - a task he pulls off brilliantly.  Elba also captures Mandela's superhuman gravitas; more than living up to Bill Clinton's memorable quote that meeting Mandela made you want "to be a bigger person".

Maybe not literally this big though.  At 6'3 Elba is built like a brick shithouse and physically dominates the screen.  He's so damn buff he looks able to take down apartheid singlehanded - looking every inch a warrior as his methods inch further and further towards direct action. It's a given that Elba can work with this dynamic physical material - yet on watching the film it's difficult to square this young, fit guerilla with the elder statesman familiar from news footage. Fortunately, even through some faintly dodgy prosthetics, it's easy to recognise this man in Elba's performance.  This is largely due to some nice voice work that's more interpretation than impersonation - never once slipping into an easy caricature.

Mandela is almost indisputably Idris Elba's film.  Having said that, it's shocking how close Naomie Harris' Winnie Mandela comes to stealing the film right out from under him.  Harris practically burns a hole in the screen with her righteous fury, a woman who refuses to let herself be defined by her husband and acting with such determined autonomy that she becomes genuinely scary. Her function within the film is to act as a mirror to Mandela's behaviour: a Malcolm X to his Martin Luther King.  The two start off entirely on the same page, both fuelled by the same thirst for justice and desire for self-governance yet while Mandela eventually follows the path of pragmatism and negotiation, Winnie becomes more and more militaristic and openly revolutionary.

It's largely through Winnie's behaviour that we understand why Mandela settled on negotiation, and what he might have become had history turned out differently.  While her husband is imprisoned, Winnie on the front lines of a slow boiling race war; raped in prison, placed in solitary confinement, shot children dying in her arms and dealing with violent internal conflicts within the anti-apartheid movement.  It's here, as we cross-cut between Winnie and Mandela that the film comes as close as it dares to a diagnosis of exactly why Nelson Mandela attained such power.

Somewhat perversely, the act of imprisoning Mandela is what empowered him.  On a personal level he was restricted to a cell and deprived of comforts, but confinement away from the world allowed the symbolic Mandela to gain worldwide notoriety. Safely tucked away on Robben Island, Mandela was unable to become embroiled in internecine violence, the walls of his cell shielding him from the splashes of blood that stained those on the streets.

It's this purity and patience that became his defining trait, an irony being that he was far more effective as a symbol of dignified, imprisoned defiance than he ever was as a guerilla freedom fighter.  But Mandela's biggest victory wasn't attaining martyrdom, it was living up to these stratospheric expectations heaped upon him.  Late in the film Winnie and Mandela meet; one in combat fatigues and one in a smart suit. The two have come to embody idealism vs pragmatism, and while we appreciate both positions we sympathise with Mandela; the film ultimately presenting direct violent action as an ouroboros of suffering.  In the short term it might work, in the long term it poisons the souls of those that participate in it.

This argument is a touch simplistic, but then Mandela is at pains to boil down the complex political ideals that power these characters and movements and make them easily understandable to a mass audience.  For example, no mention is made of the socialist underpinnings of Mandela's philosophy and apartheid is simply presented as 'a very bad thing', with no exploration of why it arose, or how the international community allowed it to continue.  This is a sanitised vision: Mandela winding up as inadvertent undertaker popping a bit of foundation and lipstick on the corpse for his imminent (and inevitable) canonisation. The film thus continues the process of Mandela's transformation, first living as a man, then as a symbol, then a man again and now finally in death, a symbol for eternity.

As such, Mandela is just about as good as it needs to be.  Sure it's unashamed hagiography that plays it safe, but that's not necessarily awful.  Having said that there is some definite crap here; the rubbish score underlines every emotional moment with a swell of strings; violence is underscored with cuts to cliched shots of weeping children; even fucking Bono shows up to warble over the credits. By the time we get to the final shots, whirling around sun-dappled fields as a Christlike Mandela is surrounded by laughing children, you can't help but think they're ladling it on a bit thick.  But then again Idris Elba and Naomie Harris are both absolutely dynamite and, most importantly, a smidge of Mandela's undeniable gravitas has rubbed off on the film.  So despite all the guff, Mandela is broadly a success and easily worth a watch.


Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is on general release from  January 3rd.

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