Thursday, November 14, 2013

AFI Fest 2013: "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom"

Director: Justin Chadwick
Runtime: 146 minutes

Despite its soaring shots of South Africa and a narrative that spans decades, the "epic" biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom feels like it belongs on a small screen in a classroom. Specifically, one presided over by a teacher suffering through a hangover, and too tired to deal with teaching those damn kids. Despite handsome production values and Important subject matter, this sporadically compelling portrait of Nelson and Winnie Mandela is ultimately a history lesson disguised as a genuinely compelling prestige drama. 

As biopics go, Justin Chadwick's film is appropriately titled. Nelson Mandela's journey was a long one, and Long Walk to Freedom is a long movie. Unfortunately, the two and a half hour runtime is exhausting, rather than exhilarating. Nelson Mandela's story is incredible, but as written by William Nicholson, it plays more like a history lesson that only momentarily comes alive as a drama. Stars Idris Elba and Naomie Harris are committed to their roles, but  their roles mostly leave them with little to do other than emote bombastically.

To the film's credit, however, it does effectively communicate the level of violence faced by blacks under apartheid without becoming exploitative. Following depictions of the Civil Rights Movement (The Butler) and the horrors of slavery (12 Years a Slave), Mandela is the next in a line of films that actually take on issues relating to black people, which is certainly commendable. It's too bad, then, that unlike those other films (or the present-day Fruitvale Station), that Chadwick's film feels didactic, rather than wholly dramatic. Though arguably less episodic than The Butler, William Nicholson's screenplay lacks the necessary character examination needed to sustain a film for two and a half hours.

With Mandela's childhood glossed over in bad Terrence Malick-lite montages, we're dropped into the story with him as a young man in college. It's one of the few times the film actually skips over a significant portion of Mandela's life, although in this case more omissions would have been welcome. Mandela is swept up in the anti-apartheid movement so swiftly that his motivation (aside from the obvious desire for equality) as a character feels empty. We know he's going to join the struggle, and the film doesn't try to delve any deeper into the man's decision to risk being such an outspoken activist.

At least the side of the film focusing on Winnie Mandela gives a look at the source of her more militaristic mode of activism (albeit superficially). Yet as Mandela's complicated and equally galvanizing wife, Harris sometimes overreaches with her performance. A painfully tight close up of her face in a jail cell is made worse by the actress' tear-soaked mugging.  

There's so much important, fascinating history covered in Mandela, but in this particular package it's difficult to get caught up in much of it. As a portrait of turbulent recent history it has some value, but as drama it only grabs you for only a few moments in its lumbering runtime. Like so many decades-spanning biopic films, less would have resulted in so much more.

Grade: C

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