Based on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography of the same name, this biopic charts the life of South Africa’s first black president, from his beginnings as a lawyer, through his leadership of the ANC and subsequent imprisonment, to his release in 1990.
My good friend and co-Goblin Dan recently blogged on the issue of badly timed biopics, and with Long Walk to Freedom sharing its UK première with the date of its subject’s death, it’s either the worst or best timed biopic ever made.
In that post, Dan talked about the lack of historical perspective lent to biopics like The Fifth Estate that are made too close to the events they show. This problem is not really true of Long Walk to Freedom thanks to the fact that, while Mandela may have been alive until very recently, even the latest events of this film are some time ago.
Being based on Mandela’s autobiography lends this film credibility in the way it fleshes out what happened. We’ve all heard the endless news reports about Mandela’s life, but to see it dramatised really helps to outline the man’s enormous sacrifice. His imprisonment in particular is something that there is no news footage of, so is hard to envisage, but its brutality is made clear here.
Idris Elba has won widespread acclaim for his portrayal of Mandela, and it’s well deserved. Not only does he perfect the rich, velvety tones of Mandela’s voice, but also captures his emotion, and changes his speech and body language as his subject ages. Sometimes the make-up in his older years looks fake enough to be eerie, which is a shame, but it’s the performance that matters, and what anchors this film. Similarly great is Naomi Harris as Winnie Mandela, whose less well publicised ordeal is addressed here too.
It’s not a completely rose tinted view, either. Mandela is shown to be a less than perfect father and husband, and the black on black violence that took place close to the end of apartheid is shown in graphic detail. Altogether it does exactly what it sets out to do, making a moving drama from the life of a great historical figure. It pulls on your heart strings in all the right places, and is a fitting tribute to a giant of world history.