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"MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM"
(2013) (Idris Elba, Naomi Harris) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A man spends decades trying to earn equal rights for the black people of South Africa, but must contend with the ramifications on himself and his family.
PLOT:
It's the 1940s and Nelson Mandela (IDRIS MANDELA) is a lawyer representing poor black people who are living under the racist rule of the white minority in South Africa. Married to Evelyn (TERRY PHETO), he's been spending increasing amounts of time with members of the African National Congress (ANC) who oppose apartheid and have opted to let their voices be heard by peaceful protests. With his involvement in such social issues increasingly resulting in less time spent with his family, not to mention his adulterous ways, Evelyn leaves and takes their kids with her.

Years later, he meets and quickly courts social worker Winnie Madikizela (NAOMIE HARRIS) who he marries in 1958. Despite starting a new family with her, Nelson eventually goes underground with the ANC to further their cause. With that eventually turning to violence, the government cracks down on them and arrests Nelson along with fellow ANC leaders Walter Sisulu (TONY KGOROGE), Ahmed Kathrada (RIAAD MOOSA), Raymond Mhlaba (ZOLANI MKIVA) and Govan Mbeki (FANA MOKOENA).

Convicted of crimes against the government, they're sentenced to life in prison on Robben Island and later transferred to Pollsmoor Prison eighteen years later. While their resolve remains steadfast, Nelson begins to change his hardcore views as he sees a bright future ahead for his people and South Africa. From that point on and as the years continue to pass, he does what he can to make that a reality, all while Winnie becomes an increasingly militant figure in the ANC.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
Let's face it -- some people's lives are far more interesting than others. As I approach what I'll presume to be the midway point in mine, I've come to the realization that my life story wouldn't make for a terribly interesting autobiography or resultant movie adaptation...at least not yet. After all, we never know what may be in store for any of us.

For some notable figures, however, their tales are so full of details -- including hardships, heartbreaks, joys, failures, triumphs and so on -- that their life stories seem custom made for so-called biopics. That would certainly seem to be the case for Nelson Mandela. While he was most notably played by Morgan Freeman in the 2009 sports drama "Invictus," the anti-apartheid activist and first elected black president of South Africa hadn't had the pleasure (or discomfort) of seeing a greater representation of his life told on the big screen.

Sadly, the man who changed his land and inspired the world by his act of forgiving his former repressors and captors never got the chance to see "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" as he passed away at the age of 95 just weeks before the film's release. While only those who closely knew him can actually attest to whether the film does him and his journey justice, as a biopic the film leaves something to be desired.

As directed by Justin Chadwick from screenwriter William Nicholson's adaptation of Mandela's autobiography of the same name, the offering suffers from the same affliction that bedevils many a biopic. Namely that's having too much material and related decades to try to cram into a feature-length movie, especially if it only runs for a bit more than two hours like this one.

The resultant issue not only arrives in the form of an overall episodic structure where the story jumps from one significant period to the next (rarely settling down for too long in any one specific period), but also one where details explaining back-story, significant historical events and/or related players are mostly glossed over. I'm not a big fan of movies told in flashback from a contemporary setting, but that might have actually served this pic well enough to impart such information to viewers who aren't well-versed in South African history.

Without such knowledge, the casual viewer will only understand that Mandela (terrifically played by Idris Elba spanning a number of decades) is a lawyer in 1940s South Africa -- defending poor black folks in a racially unbalanced system -- who gets recruited by the ANC (which isn't detailed for those not immersed in the history) to help their movement. His first marriage (to a woman played by Terry Pheto) comes and goes nearly in the blink of an eye, thus allowing more time for his second wife, the far better-known Winnie (Naomi Harris), although their meeting, courtship and marriage whips by so fast that if you step away from the film for a few minutes you'll have missed the entire dating process.

The longest point of focus -- and the moment in Mandela's life that's most recognizable for most viewers -- is his incarceration that begins a bit after the 50-minute mark in the film and continues nearly to the end. That also covers a significant period of time -- more than 27 years -- in the man's life and thus similarly feels somewhat episodic. But at least the filmmakers maintain their focus for longer periods of time on those segments, thus allowing Elba to capture the essence of the real man along with the seeds of his transformation from militant leader to an introspective and peaceful world figure.

And while this won't ever be confused with the brilliant "The Shawshank Redemption" in terms of storytelling and showcasing the horrors of injustice and the penal system on those stuck inside it (which is a shame since that's fictitious and Mandela's journey was obviously real), some standalone moments allow Elba to knock it out of the park, so to speak. That includes when he receives a heartbreaking telegram about a family member, or when he's finally allowed to see one of his daughters for the first time in more than a decade to find her now a young woman rather than a little girl like he last saw in person.

Considering what the real-life man sacrificed and otherwise went through to follow his convictions, you can't help but wish this film offered more such heartfelt, touching and engaging moments. But with so much ground to cover and years to span, the filmmakers simply don't have enough time to deliver more such meaningful moments.

Filled with plenty of quick montages and jumping from one year and event to the next, the pic ends up coming off as far too superficial and devoid of enough back-story, facts and explanatory material to give the viewer substantial context to get into the story, not to mention the real-life man or the proper onscreen portrayal he so obviously deserves. "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" rates as a 4.5 out of 10.




Reviewed December 23, 2013 / Posted December 25, 2013


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