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Movie of the week: ‘Long Walk to Freedom’


When it was mooted, at some point in the past 16 years, that Indian director Shekhar Kapoor might direct Long Walk to Freedom, feverish images sprang to mind. Given the way Kapoor played fast and loose with the facts of history in his two movies about Queen Elizabeth I, it seemed quite possible that his version of Nelson Mandela's autobiography would have the liberation hero swimming to freedom from Robben Island.

As it has turned out, though, Kapoor didn't direct the movie; Justin Chadwick did, working from a script by William Nicholson. And, amazingly enough, they have managed to make of Mandela's life story a highly watchable film narrative, while also remaining faithful to history – that is, an awful lot has had to be left out or glossed over, but what remains is coherently presented and, whatever its omissions, tells no lies. 

It's amazing because there are so many things that could have gone wrong, so many missteps waiting to happen, so many wrong notes that could have been struck. And the filmmakers would be answerable, too, to pretty much the entire South African population (except a few Boere bittereinders and some Azapo types).

The script makes all the difference. Eschewing devices such as flashbacks or framing narratives, thank heavens, it moves straightforwardly through time and through Mandela's life, dealing with many episodes in barely more than a minute or two but nonetheless getting them in and giving them resonance across the story as a whole. 

In the period from the Defiance Campaign of 1955 to the capture of Mandela in 1962, for instance, much that is of historical importance has simply been elided. I recall no mention of the Treason Trial that preceded Rivonia, which is the kind of thing that will have to be explained in the DVD extras if Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is to be used for educational purposes (which I suspect is one of its destinies in South Africa). But the movie's broad-strokes summary gets us swiftly from protest to underground to capture to trial in a swift, effective set of tightly organised yet fluid sequences.

Idris Elba is good as Mandela in a way that one can't help comparing with Morgan Freeman's Mandela in Invictus, which I thought got some things quite wrong. Elba's performance may not have all the actorly detail Freeman brought to the role, but it has the gestalt: the erect posture and the regal demeanour as well as the warmth and fatherly humanity. If anything is lacking, it's the twinkle that lurked in Mandela's eye, post-release, and even when he was not entirely joking – but that can probably be blamed on the old-man make-up that weighs down Elba's face in the latter parts of the movie.

The rest of the cast does fine work, too, especially those who have very little on-screen time to establish themselves as personae: Tony Kgoroge as Walter Sisulu and Riaad Moosa as Ahmed Kathrada, in particular (what, no Brendan Jack or Mark Banks as Joe Slovo?), act skilfully as key instigators as well as a kind of Greek chorus commenting on Mandela's actions at certain points. 

The one cast member who didn't entirely work for me was Naomie Harris as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Okay, it's probably an impossible role, or nearly impossible – and it's a great pity we haven't yet been able to see Jennifer Hudson's portrayal in Darrell Roodt's Winnie, which may have provided some educative comparisons. It's also a pity we didn't get to see what a South African actor such as Pamela Nomvete could do with the part. Harris just seems to lack Winnie's molten core; she's more Uhura than Medea.

One doesn't want to buy into the making and promotion of this film as some kind of national patriotic project, but Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a movie South Africa (and the many collaborators from overseas) can be proud of, as we are proud of its subject.

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Author Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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