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If there is, as some would have you believe, no such thing as bad publicity, the makers of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom must have experienced some fairly intense mixed emotions. It was during the Royal Premiere of Justin Chadwick’s film that the former South African president finally passed away, and this has surely impacted in some way on the way in which this film has been received –┬áit may have been planned as a biography of a hugely significant international figure, but Nelson Mandela’s death instantly transformed it into a history of the closest thing to a secular saint that the modern world has seen.

mandela

Probably it’s for the best that the makers of the film weren’t obliged to labour under the weight of this sort of expectation, because this was surely an intimidating enough project to take on as it is. Mandela himself, who was apparently involved with the project for much of its gestation, was insistent that he not be presented as some idealised, perfect figure. But that is, to all intents and purposes, what Mandela has become, and any biography seeking to be too subversive, or challenge the legend too forcefully, would doubtless be in for a critical and popular scourging.

So this was always going to be a movie which took an approach of reverent good taste to its subject, and not rock the boat too much – also, it was inevitably going to be a prestige production, the subject matter alone being enough to catch the eye of the awards shortlist people (even if only briefly). There’s a certain way of going about the making of this sort of historical biopic, as demonstrated by a film like Attenborough’s Gandhi (one of the few movies which is really comparable in terms of its subject matter and scope). All in all, then, even while Mandela was still alive, this was a film with very little room for manoeuvre as it attempted to meet a challenging brief: stick to the grammar of the genre, while sticking reasonably close to the truth, without deviating too far from its subject’s public image.

Perhaps this is the reason why the film devotes only a scant few minutes to Mandela’s childhood years in a Xhosa village, and makes no mention of the fact he received the name ‘Nelson’ from a white schoolteacher – presumably exploring Mandela’s African identity too deeply would make him less identifiable to a global audience.

Instead, the film really gets underway with Mandela already as a man in his twenties, portrayed by Idris Elba. To be honest the first hour of the film sticks very closely to Accepted Procedure for this kind of film – there’s less a sense of a developing story about a living protagonist than there is of historical join-the-dots, with the film jumping between key events in Mandela’s political awakening and personal life. Here we do get a few references to the side of Mandela that is most frequently overlooked – his womanising, and his involvement in armed struggle against his country’s government – this was not a man who categorically renounced violence. However, this material is handled somewhat perfunctorily, and one does sense the discomfort of the film-makers in having to include it at all. Anyway, this section of the film is informative, and I’m sure it bears some relation to actual fact, but it never really comes to life as a proper narrative nor as a movie.

However, things change dramatically – in every sense of the word – when the story reaches the point of Mandela’s capture and trial. Mandela’s speech from the dock is justly famous, but what the film makes clear is that it was fully intended as the prelude and trigger to an act of self-sacrificial martyrdom, with Mandela and his fellow defendants expecting the death penalty. Mandela’s time in prison is the defining fact of his life, but he never expected to go there – he expected to die.

You could, I think, have made a very worthwhile and interesting Mandela bio-pic set almost entirely between 1964 and 1990, focussing entirely on his imprisonment. It is, as I say, the defining element of the Mandela legend and central to any understanding of the man. What were the effects on him? How did his family cope? How on Earth did he emerge with his dignity and resolution undiminished, and the ability to – publicly, at least – denounce revenge as an empty solace?

It’s impossible for any film to find answers to these sorts of questions. However, if Long Walk to Freedom is worth seeing – and I really think it is – then it’s for this section of the film. I half expected Mandela’s trial to conclude and a caption to come up reading ’26 Years Later’, but Mandela’s prison life is covered in some detail, and it’s only really here that we get some sense of him as a human being rather than as a significant historical icon, quite simply because the script is not constrained into merely ticking a series of boxes. The conclusion of the film is, once again, more a series of snapshots of key moments in recent history, but by this point it is as if we are dealing more with a human being than a historical figure, which helps considerably.

Idris Elba is not the most obvious Mandela lookalile, but he brings his usual power and presence to the role, and manages an uncanny impersonation of that very familiar voice. I’m more used to seeing Elba in roles where he’s taking on vampires or giant alien monsters, but he carries this very serious movie effortlessly – and I do mean carries; there isn’t the big-name cameo from, say, Kevin Spacey as F.W. de Klerk. Elba is the one who is in nearly every scene, the only other character to be treated in depth is Winnie Mandela, portrayed here by Naomie Harris – and treated quite sensitively and fairly, I thought. Winnie Mandela’s involvement in extreme activism isn’t ignored, but neither is her brutalisation by the apartheid regime during her husband’s imprisonment – in a sense, she falls victim to a cycle of violence in exactly the way that her husband, miraculously, did not.

The history of South Africa is, I suspect, one of the great stories of our time, by turns brutal and absurd, depressing and uplifting. Just as it’s probably too big a story for any film to sensibly tell, so is that of Nelson Mandela. If Long Walk to Freedom doesn’t quite do the man himself justice, always seeming just a touch too reverential to really penetrate to the heart of this extraordinary figure, then it at least makes it clear what an extraordinary and important figure he was. And by that standard it must be considered a successful, and important film. It has made me want to find out more about the real Nelson Mandela, rather than the airbrushed and simplified icon of the popular imagination, and I think that would have pleased Mandela himself, as well. By no means a perfect film, nor even a really great one – but, as I say, surely an important one.

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