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Movie review: Mandela Long Walk to Freedom belongs to the actors

Justin Chadwick's film is based on the late South African president's autobiography by the same title. Regardless of whether critics have liked the film or not, they all agree that Idris Elba and Naomie Harris play a mindblowing Mr and Mrs Mandela.

movie reviews Updated: Jan 24, 2014 15:17 IST
Durga M Sengupta
Durga M Sengupta
Mandela film,Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,Madela film review

Justin Chadwick's film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is based on the late South African president's autobiography by the same title. Regardless of whether critics have liked the film or not, they all agree that Idris Elba and Naomie Harris play a mindblowing Mr and Mrs Mandela.

"What comes through in Idris Elba's performance is a leader of enormous emotional strength. Here's a man in his mid-40s, sentenced to life in prison on Robben Island, where he is called "boy," forced to wear short pants and work at hard manual labor," writes Mick LaSalle in SF Gate.

Peter Bradshaw is also rather impressed with Elba's acting skills.

"Idris Elba conveys as much as any actor could of the enigma of Mandela's long experience in prison: it is a performance of sensitivity and force: his impersonation of the walking, talking Mandela is sharply observed, though it isn't just mimicry, and Naomie Harris is very good as Winnie, who (mostly) outside prison did not have the luxury of saintly inactivity and had to do what she saw as the dirty work of getting violent with the ANC's enemies and also with those traitors on her own team," writes Bradshaw in The Guardian.

Geoffrey Macnab of The Independent explains how Elba makes an impact.

"It is left to Elba to give emotional complexity to a story whose triumphant ending we all know well in advance. Elba's performance is stirring and very effective. He doesn't just capture the gait, voice, mannerisms and self-deprecating humour of an immensely well-known figure, but he shows us a character who is constantly changing. The young Mandela is very different from the sainted figure we encounter in the final reel. He is athletic (continually shown boxing), charismatic, angry and confrontational. He is also a pragmatist in the fight against white supremacy."

In spite of being a bit disgruntled with the film, Moira Macdonald of Seattle Times is quite taken with Harris.

"There’s much that’s right about this film, starting with the casting. Idris Elba, in the title role, movingly uses his rumbling voice to create a man, not a saint. And Naomie Harris, she of the enchantingly impish grin, creates something unshakable of Winnie, who herself becomes an activist."

"(It) is one of those noble, thoughtful films that nonetheless doesn’t quite work, and the only real reason is that it tries to do too much, and ends up giving short shrift. It unfolds as a series of moments, some of which are beautifully rendered (though Alex Heffes’ score feels disappointingly predictable), but they’re dots on a canvas, not quite filling in a potentially lush picture," she notes about the film.

Tom Long isn't too happy with the film either.

"Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is more of a long walk to frustration," writes Long in Detroit News. But he too has a good word for the cast.

"Despite fine performances from Idris Elba as the South African leader and Naomie Harris as his wife, Winnie, there’s no way the entirety of Nelson Mandela’s life is going to fit into a two-and-a-half hour movie. Or a four-and-a-half hour movie for that matter."

Fair point.

But how does the biographical narrative flow?

While Barbara VanDenburgh of AZ Central talks of the "grace" of the narrative, Ty Burr of thinks the film is so "official" in its tone that it makes for a "perfect funeral."

"The intentions are noble, but the film’s eagerness to honour Mandela instead shortchanges him. Mandela was a man who broke the mould; Mandela (Long Walk to Freedom) is a film content to nestle very neatly into it," points out VanDenburgh.

"It’s the Official Story of a man who was for nearly 30 years his country’s most unofficial person, and, aside from some youthful randiness early in the film, it wouldn’t be out of place at a state funeral. The movie is extremely well produced, it features two excellent lead performances and it is dull," notes Ty Burr.

Mick LaSalle likes the film for accomplishing two main things.

"The first is the obvious one, to make an audience understand and feel exactly what made Mandela remarkable."

"The second is more subtle. It's a dramatic challenge, to maintain movement and velocity in a story in which the central character spends 27 years in prison. That it's possible to watch Long Walk and not realize that difficulty is a measure of its success."

But as Moira Macdonald writes, "By the end of (the film), as decades have whooshed past, we still don’t quite know this man."

Rotten Tomatoes grants the film a score of 57% on the tomatometer with the comment, "It might be too respectful to truly soar, but there's no denying Idris Elba's impressive work in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom -- or the inspirational power of the life it depicts."

First Published: Jan 24, 2014 15:04 IST