Based on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, scripted by William Nicholson (Gladiator), and directed by Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl), Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a well meaning, but somewhat lacking biographical film about one of the greatest leaders and social activists of our time, Nelson Mandela. Anchored by strong performances by Idris Elba as the title character, and Noamie Harris, as Mandela’s second wife, Winnie, the film explores events from Mandela’s youth in the 1920’s all the way up to his historical election as President of South Africa in 1994.
Unfortunately, like so many biopics before it, Mandela glazes over important events and signposts others. Much of Mandela’s early life, his career as a young courtroom attorney and budding revolutionary, events that could have provided some insight into his psyche are largely ignored. Instead, we things are reduced to a series of important plot points. In 1940’s Johannesburg, Mandela is a lawyer; doing as well as a black man can with no interest in political activism. However, after s friend of his is beaten death by police, Mandela feels the need to get involved. This may be true, but the way it’s portrayed makes Mandela come across like countless other heroes portrayed in movies; reluctant, but spurred into action by personal events.
The film deserves credit for showing Mandela’s flaws as a young man, before he was considered such a virtuous figure. His womanizing ways lead to the dissolution of his first marriage, just as Mandela was getting seriously involved in the African National Congress. In the process of building a coalition against the current regime, he becomes enraptured by Winnie Madikizela, who would become his second wife, confidante, and much later, an ideological rival. Eventually rejecting his non violent position, Mandela quickly becomes the opposition’s enemy #1. Labeled a terrorist, and a threat to the African National Congress, he is eventually arrested and tried for attempting to overthrow the government. Found guilty, he becomes a martyr, when he’s able to avoid a death sentence.
From there, the bulk of the story deals with Mandela’s 27 years in prison. While it does show some of his struggle against racist guards, like a lot of other aspects of the film, much of this part of his life is glossed over. Of real interest here is Winnie’s turmoil. Left alone with several children, she faces constant interrogation by the local police and government agents. The world is beginning to change, and Winnie is a fiery, charismatic leader, seeking retribution against her the establishment. This is in stark contrast to her husband, who went into prison a man filled with anger, but came out reasonable, and interested in exacting peace, not revenge.
Though Idris Elba doesn’t look a lot like Nelson Mandela, he does a fine job in the early parts of the film, capturing Mandela youthful exuberance and affable charm. The fact that the movie moves so fast from event to event in Mandela’s life doesn’t really give Elba a chance to flesh out his characterization. It also doesn’t help that his waxy aging makeup looks laughable in a few scenes. Noamie Harris manages to steal the spotlight with her charismatic portrayal of Winnie. Watching her turn into an unapologetic activist during her husband’s imprisonment is a wonderful transformation by Harris.
While there’s little doubt that Justin Chadwick’s heart was in the right place with Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. However, it feels as though he barely skimmed the surface of what was clearly a fascinating life. I still recommend giving this a look, but expect it to act as a primer to Nelson Mandela’s life, not the definitive story.
Presented in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom looks wonderful on Blu-ray. There’s a film-like texture throughout, supported by a consistent grain structure and details are top-notch. Colors are equally impressive, maintaining a rich and lively appearance. Skin tones look natural, and digital anomalies are a non-issue.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom features an engrossing DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless soundtrack. Surround action is very effective, and separation noticeable. Music delivery is precise and full, and dialogue is presented without any distortions. Sound effects are immersive throughout, creating an enjoyable listening experience.
English SDH, and Spanish subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Audio Commentary: Director Justin Chadwick discusses Mandela’s burial place and establishing his heritage at a young age, casting, Idris Elba’s physical differences from the real Mandela but his ability to carry the same spirit, the film’s parallel to Mandela’s lifestyle, actor performances, Mandela’s relationship with Winnie, recreating key historical scenes, remaining true to history and the people portrayed, the meticulous historical recreations, the Mandela family’s support for the film, and more. This is a must-listen.
- Mandela: The Leader You Know, the Man You Didn’t (HD, 22:04) A recap of Mandela’s life, intercut with shots from the film, historical archives, and more. A large number of celebrities are included. With optional English subtitles.
- Behind-the-Scenes Featurettes (HD) A collection of four features, each on a specific aspect of the filmmaking process. Included are Production Design (6:51), Costumes & Makeup (8:45), Special Effects (7:09), and Music & Sound (7:34). With optional English subtitles.
- Tribute Video Gallery (HD) Celebrities share their thoughts on Mandela. Included are Dan Rather – Journalist (2:30), Al Gore – Former Vice President (2:32), Robin Roberts – Journalist (3:02), Tom Brokaw – Journalist (1:37), CCH Pounder – Actor (2:50), John Legend – Musician (1:04), and Jeanette Carlson – Anti-Apartheid Activist (2:41). With optional English subtitles.
- DVD Copy of the film.
- UV Digital Copy
- Digital Copy