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By Samira Sawlani

Bringing stories of real life heroes to the big screen has been a task undertaken by filmmakers for decades.  For every success, such as Gandhi starring Ben Kingsley there have been numerous failures. The challenge in capturing the essence of the person, their human side, while doing justice to the struggle they fought, the message they carried and the journey they took is one which is not for the faint-hearted. A task which British director Justin Chadwick takes on in bringing to life the autobiography of a man considered to be the greatest statesman of the 20th centuary – Nelson Mandela.

Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom, chronicles the life of Mandela from his childhood years, through his imprisonment and eventual release. We witness a love story, the bitter reality of apartheid South Africa and the fight against it, and the personal journey of both Mandela (played by Idris Elba) and his second-wife Winnie (played by Naomie Harris).

Mandela has often been treated as a demi-God, while Winnie was, and in some quarters, continues to be, demonised. Long Walk to Freedom does not aim to perpetuate this saintly picture of Nelson Mandela, and in early scenes we see him abuse and cheat on his first wife, and at some moments seem indifferent to the apartheid struggle. There is also no denial of Mandela’s early support and involvement in armed revolt.

Naomie Harris’s portrayal of Winnie Mandela captures at every step the feelings which a woman in her position would have experienced. Going from a young woman in love to an angry revolutionary, it is through Harris’s flawless facial expressions that the audience are able to sympathise and gain a deep understanding of this often misunderstood woman, who continued to support violent struggle despite Mandela later opposing it.

As for Idris Elba, the actor has spoken regarding his concerns that he bears no physical resemblance to Nelson Mandela. However, Elba’s manner, presence, voice and accent allow him to capture the essence and traits of Madiba. The use of make up to denote Mandela’s ageing is less than perfect, yet Elba is able to portray the evolution of a man who goes from a carefree young lawyer to an aged yet agile and sometimes lonely political figure.

Powerful scenes in the film help to give some insight into the reality of apartheid South Africa and Mandela’s experience in Robben Island. Real life footage of the Sharpeville massacre, and re-enacted scenes of Winnie Mandela being beaten in prison, all make for uncomfortable viewing.  Another gut wrenching scene is of Mandela in his cell, where viewers are able to see the walls around him from every angle, leaving the viewer feeling claustrophobic and wondering in reality what horror it would have been to live that existence.

Fitting a lifetime of events into 146 minutes is where the film struggles. There are moments where it jumps from scene to scene far too quickly, and there are limits in terms of just how in-depth the script could go in delving into the emotions of the characters. However, this is where the cast of Elba, Harris and Lindiwe Matshikiza who plays Mandela’s teenage daughter, shine. 

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Where Long Walk to Freedom triumphs is in the ability of the film, through its storytelling, cinematography and stellar performances, to give some insight into the life of a man who, though he achieved great things for his country and the world, lost much in the process; and whose actions had a very real impact upon those he loved.

There will perhaps never be enough words, books or films to truly do justice to the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela and the many phases of his life from underground revolutionary to President, but A Long Walk to Freedom certainly gives it a good go.