AFI FEST 2013 Review: ‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’ Tells Facts When it Should Show More Emotion

By  · Published on November 11th, 2013

At the start of Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba) says his father named him to mean “troublemaker,” a stigma Mandela ostensibly spends his life trying to erase, before running headfirst into. With segregation encroaching on the lives of all those living in South Africa and military oppression getting worse as those in power attempt to keep this divide intact, Mandela finds himself pulled into a movement to fight for the rights of his people – not to overtake their oppressors, but to become their equals.

Starting from his time as a boy living in the rural outskirts of South Africa to his political ascent, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom attempts to capture the story of this extraordinary man, but falls short when it comes to depicting the affection behind his actions. Mandela began his career as a lawyer, but after one of his friends is beaten to death after being arrested for simply not having proof of his citizenship on him, Mandela realizes he is upholding laws that do not protect him and needs to do something to bring about change for not only himself, but his fellow citizens.

Unfortunately, Mandela feels more like a series of historical reenactments rather than a moving narrative. Elba plays Mandela as a strong, layered, compassionate man, but Mandela spends more time recreating the man’s memorable speeches and political moves and not enough time crafting the emotional backbone that drove his relationships with his family and colleagues.

Mandela’s relationship with his second wife Winnie (Naomie Harris) is one of the few things that seems to draw real and connecting emotion out of him, but after his acts against the government get him a lifetime prison sentence, their marriage and relationship is put to the ultimate test. Elba plays Mandela with an almost serene sense of peace, despite knowing he may never even touch his wife again, and this choice starts to break down the moving bond established during their courtship. This, plus the quick dismissal of his first wife (who is never mentioned again after the beginning of the film), starts to create the sense of Mandela as an island rather than a character an audience could easily root for.

That character ended up becoming Winnie, who is seen not only struggling to live without her husband while raising their two daughters on her own, she also has to live in a quickly crumbling world where hope is low and tensions run high as the violence around her increases with each passing day. Harris delivers an explosive and transformative performance that made her compelling and emotionally affecting to watch while Elba’s Mandela became more of an after thought and political figure head.

William Nicolson’s script has moments that are emotionally affecting, but those moments were few and far between once Mandela is imprisoned and Winnie branches out on her own. The striking imagery such as the juxtaposition between Mandela washing of the dust of breaking rocks in prison and a young Mandela on the verge of manhood washing ceremonial paint off himself captured by cinematographer Lol Crawley were some of Mandela’s highlights. This visual difference of becoming a man versus being a man was incredibly powerful and Mandela would have benefited from more scenes like this to connect Mandela’s past to his current choices.

The main issue with the film is the long runtime which makes the story feel too verbose rather than inclusive. Director Chadwick could have created a stronger narrative had he focused more on the emotional motivations of his characters and tightened up the editing to keep the film moving along at a more engaging pace.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom did not need to show every moment of Mandela’s life and would have felt more moving than factual if it had focused more on poignant moments to better connect the audience with Mandela the person rather than Mandela the political figure.

The Upside: A strong portrayal of Mandela by Elba, a breakout performance from Harris, beautiful imagery.

The Downside: Overly long runtime that needs sharper editing to tighten pacing and overall affect of the narrative, needs more emotionally charged scenes that showed more of why rather than how Mandela was driven.

On the Side: Alex Heffes’ score was recorded live in South Africa and U2 wrote an original new song for the film, “Ordinary Love.”