It’s An Ideal For Which I Am Prepared To Die

Justin Chadwick

Idris Elba
Naomie Harris

All biopics suffer from the same flaw. The towering central performance overshadows not only the supporting characters but also the story and factual history of the individual being portrayed. Thankfully, this film benefits from two very powerful lead performances and manages to feel like a representation, not an elaborate glorification but it still faces the issue of trying to cram seventy five years into two and a half hours.

For those unaware, in the early 1940’s Nelson Mandela [Elba] was a lawyer in South Africa but despite his credentials, he was still treated as a second class citizen, due to the colour of his skin. Witnessing so many clients abused and ignored by a white dominant government, Mandela joins a small group known as the ANC, in an attempt to spread awareness. Without significant progress, this escalated to peaceful protests of social disorder: boycotting buses, charging “Europeans only” gates and infiltrating other white only areas. The result of which was always arrest and release by the police. After protestors (reacting to a new law that all black citizens must carry ID at all times) are fired upon outside a police station, Mandela convinces his group that violence is the only language the government will understand. So begins a series of raids, bombings and burnings. Eventually the police catch up with the lead members of the ANC and in 1962 they are all arrested. Hoping to avoid martyrdom and further rioting, the presiding judge sentences the accused to life imprisonment, rather than the state preferred death penalty. For twenty seven years, Mandela is kept behind bars, away from his family and the outside world. All the while, disdain for apartheid grows and the rest of the world begins to blacklist South Africa for its politics and principles. All the while, Mandela struggles with the conditions of his imprisonment and a life without his wife [Harris] and daughters.

The narrative is split into two clear segments. The first details Mandela’s younger years from a humble lawyer, to active insurgent against apartheid. The second half illustrates his incrimination and imprisonment. Then we get this tricky third act of his release and running for President of South Africa. This is where the film starts to wane a little. Having witnessed the key moments in his opposition and incarceration, we’re given this comparatively brief summary of his rise to power – which, considering the outside world seemed to love him (and the South Africans slowly began to accept him) and anyone’s knowledge of history, feels a little obvious and a lot of the tension is quelled. Having said that, this film makes no attempt to hide the unpleasantness of Mandela’s life, seducing several women, leaving his wife and son at home, coordinating and executing raids and bombings. This isn’t your atypical edited version of history from a contemporary perspective. The story acknowledges Mandela’s pro-violence past and his anti-violence attitude in his later years and it’s this balance that really cements the difference between an angry young man and a tired old man. A view which is paralleled by the persecution and unrelenting rage of his second wife, Winnie, who uses her experiences to fuel her rage and hatred of her oppressors.

As acceptable as the supporting cast are, they are not as crucial as the roles of Nelson and Winnie Mandela. I’m not saying their real-life counterparts were in anyway unimportant or boring but a story of this scope and scale will always need to cut down the content and actions of the surrounding characters. Idris Elba gives a fantastic performance and while he’s far too tall and bears no resemblance to Mandela, he recreates the iconic voice with sincerity and his body language evolves as time progresses, convincing us with each stage that we are witnessing the embodiment of Nelson Mandela. Naomi Harris gives an equally powerful performance but somehow she irked me. Her ordeal was just as harrowing (if not more so), her struggles, trials and tribulations were the similar and yet something about the portrayal left me cold. I could be alone in this and while I will happily admit, her role is brilliantly played, I think I simply haven’t enjoyed Harris’ acting in recent years – feeling she has waded hip deep into very hammy am-dram territory.

Several films have been made on the subject of Nelson Mandela and South African apartheid from many perspectives but the majority come off with an odd air of made-for-TV amateurism. The only one that distanced itself was Invictus but even that seemed to underplay the severity of what the man had witnessed, committed and endured. I wouldn’t have thought Justin Chadwick was capable of handling such a mature release but he does a very commendable job. Sure, he slips up every now-and-then, giving audiences a Lord Of The Rings style multiple endings, lacking all subtlety and tact with his execution of key emotional developments and favouring verbose patronising speeches, rather than credible dialogue. The production value is spectacular, recreating several decades of South African history; from the clothing, hair, props, sets, everything is impressively recreated. Part of me thinks Alex Heffes was chosen for his impressive work on Last King Of Scotland but that’s probably a cynical side of me. Either way, the score is pretty impressive and fitting to the on-screen drama but feels a little lightweight in memorability and presence.

All things considered, Mandela is a very informative and entertaining narrative, helmed by a wholly convincing lead performance but it suffers from a bloated running time and pacing that loses steam once it strides into its second hour. There’s no way of telling how it will be received by the general public or award ceremonies but it is certainly a Nelson Mandela portrayal for the ages.

Release Date:
3rd January 2014

The Scene To Look Out For:
As much as Nelson’s time in prison was thoroughly unpleasant and demoralising, it seems to pale in comparison to the mistreatment of his wife, who was often picked up for no other reason than to be brutally interrogated, bullied in front of her children and peers and as a means to psychologically break Nelson.

Notable Characters:
I never would have cast Idris Elba in this role. Furthermore, I never would have thought he had the range to play a character of this nature and stature (and this is speaking as an Elba fan and advocate). Yet the man achieves greatness in personifying such an iconic individual and bringing us a man we can understand, relate to, believe and follow.

Highlighted Quote:
“As your leader it is my job to tell you when you are wrong. And my friends, you are wrong”

In A Few Words:
“Heavily weighted and sluggish at times but significantly more impressive than most biopics”

Total Score: