Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Two towering performances enhance this serviceable, poignantly timed biopic, writes Tara Brady

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Director: Justin Chadwick
Cert: 12A
Genre: Drama
Starring: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa
Running Time: 2 hrs 26 mins

Authorised biography is a tricky business for any filmmaker, particularly when the material spans nine decades and details the life of the lately departed, much-adored Nelson Mandela.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom dutifully walks us through an extraordinary journey. The young Mandela enjoys a traditional tribal upbringing in rural Xhosa before settling down to life as a firebrand lawyer. It doesn't take long beside the inequities of South Africa's apartheid system serve to radicalise Mandela (Idris Elba).

He makes for a swaggering revolutionary, defined by rousing oration and an eye for the ladies. His first marriage to Evelyn Mase (Terry Pheto) is not a happy one. A second union with feisty fellow ANC member Winnie (Naomie Harris) is a meeting of like minds. But their relationship is cut short by Mandela's long incarceration on Robben Island.

Director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) makes the best of South Africa's sunny luminosity and colourful palate. Commendably, the film gives time to Winnie Mandela's often overlooked parallel confinement and persecution. It doesn't shy away from Mandela's unkindness to his first wife, nor his activities as an anti-state freedom fighter.


As such, it will serve the needs of anyone seeking to attend a reverential commemoration service or indeed, younger viewers requiring a Mandela primer. The scope of the picture, however, is ultimately its undoing. Nelson Mandela's life does not fit neatly into a three-act-structure and neither, consequently, does Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. The sprawl of events – the truncations, the montages, the exposition – are key symptoms of TV Movie Syndrome.

It falls to Elba and Harris to remind us why we're watching this in a movie theatre. Harris ably channels Winnie's bravery and clout from a much smaller frame. Elba is unfailingly charismatic and conveys all of his subject's dazzle and subtle shifts.

To date, we've seen many Mandelas: Morgan Freeman's twinkling rendition in Invictus; a mournful Dennis Haysbert in Goodbye Bafana; a sly Sidney Poitier in Mandela and De Klerk.

We think we’ve found the winner.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic