Nelson Mandela was one of the giants of the 20th century, and his work and influence has continued into the new millennium. This was a man who spent 27 years in prison for his anti-apartheid activities in South Africa, and then went on to become President of South Africa just four years after his release from jail. Upon his death at the age of 95 this past December, it was obvious that his legacy would be remembered as “the father of a nation” as well as a national liberator and saviour. He was a greatly respected world leader and figure…and he certainly deserved a much better chronicle of his life than the infantile, paint-by-numbers, “television” bio that is “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”. And director Justin Chadwick along with screenwriter William Nicholson, should be ashamed of themselves for dumbing this story down to grade-school level. It wastes the talents of Idris Elba as Mandela and Naomie Harris as his long-time wife(the couple separated in 1992)Winnie. They are worthy of a stronger film too.
There’s no nuance or insight here, and everything is presented in the broadest possible way. I found myself finishing character’s sentences multiple times because the screenplay is so simplistic and obvious. You won’t learn much about Nelson Mandela here, besides what most folks of a certain age are already aware of. It’s the kind of bio-pic with grand, swelling music(by Alex Heffes)constantly reminding you how to feel, while the plot line for “Mandela: LWtF” moves from platitude to platitude to platitude. You’ll barely know why Mandela went to prison for decades, or understand how Winnie became a violent radical while he was incarcerated. And you won’t get to know the people around him either, outside of a brief surface introduction. It’s almost impossible to decipher the role President F. W. De Klerk played in all of this, with his scant minutes of screen representation. And although it purports to show Nelson Mandela “the man” in a production mini-feature I watched after the film, it simply provides snippets of his youthful peccadilloes, one brief scene exhibiting his “brilliance” as a lawyer, and a lot of typical bits involving white people disrespecting him and calling him “kaffir”(a South African slur considered as offensive as the “N” word). It’s a decently constructed film, but it contains no depth whatsoever.
The two lead actors are just fine…and blameless in the failure of this enterprise as far as I’m concerned. Mr. Elba brings just the right level of gravitas and charisma to the late leader and Ms. Harris impressively straddles intricate levels of fire and ice. But they simply don’t have much to work with, as they are stuck with this clunker of a script. I’ll repeat that this might be a decent history lesson for elementary school children that don’t ask for much. Intelligent, probing adults can steer clear, however. And it all wraps up with a song(“Ordinary Love”)played over the credits, written and performed by U2, that was nominated for Best Original Song at the 86th Annual Academy Awards. It lost…and so does the audience for this movie. Grade: C-