Director: Justin Chadwick
As biopics go, you could choose a much less interesting subject than Nelson Mandela and still make a ruddy good film. Part of the reason why he became such an inspiring figure was because of the personal struggles he had to overcome to get where he did; his sacrifices were martyr-like. Now, we can easily see him as a saint, almost like a Messiah for the South African people. In a way, it's a good thing that this film was actually made before his death, because any film made now would be treating him with the same reverence as a demi-god. This film at least portrays him very much as a human being; he has flaws, he does things wrong, he cheats on his wife, he puts people at risk. However, we still see no condemnation for his occasionally violent tactics. In this case, the filmmakers clearly decided to embrace a utilitarian "ends justify the means" mantra.
Central to the film, of course, is Elba's performance as Mandela. I may argue the existence of the Globe nomination due to the timing of the film, but there's no doubt that it is actually deserved. From Mandela as a young man, right through until his release from prison, Elba looks like Mandela, talks like him and inhabits a character that we have all known and respected so convincingly that you forget it's not actually him you're watching. For the British star, this role is the chance of a lifetime to flex his acting muscles, and he does this with aplomb and tenacity. The Mandela he gives us is the father of a nation, the grand statesman from a small upbringing; he is humble, righteous but flawed. It is a great performance indeed.
At two hours twenty minutes, the film's main downfall is its length. It takes great pain in establishing Mandela as a character and being historically accurate in setting up the scene before his imprisonment, but were I the filmmaker, I would have shaved the entire first half hour from the film entirely. Watching Mandela with his first wife, his tribal upbringing, his career as a lawyer - all this could have been hinted at rather than shown. For a man whose life was so full of landmark moments, I don't understand why you would waste your focus on points of little significance.
As far as biopics go, this is not a landmark film. It gives us little more about Mandela that we didn't know already and says very little by itself. The message it gives is the same message that Mandela gave himself; if his message weren't so universal, it would be easy to claim this a piece of liberal agitprop. The film is about as controversial as an airing cupboard, but for the purpose of learning about apartheid and as a snapshot of that part of our history, the film ticks all the right boxes. Dramatically, the film lacks any real kind of pace, but arguably no biopic ever really possesses that. But what Mandela: The Long Walk To Freedom lacks that, say, La Vie En Rose possesses, is the ability to surprise us. And that's not the fault of anyone at all, just an indicator of the sheer gravitas Mandela, the man, actually had.