by: Eric J. Grimm
Directed by Justin Chadwick. Starring Idris Elba and Naomie Harris.
Biopics are tricky business and I have yet to see one this year that sells me on the format. Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: Walk to Freedom, expansive in the time it covers though limited in insight, is yet another example of how biopics don’t work. Despite a solid performance from Idris Elba and a few promising moments from Naomie Harris, the film consistently feels stale and rests on the power of its subject’s incredible story.
I could never get bored watching Idris Elba, which is what makes Mandela all the more frustrating. In playing a character known for both militarism and pragmatism, Elba doesn’t get to do much in over two hours of screen time. Any conflicted nature he may have is lost beneath a terrible makeup job that ages Mandela too quickly into his twenty-seven years in prison. All that’s left is some capable but stagnant vocal work.
Naomie Harris is prosthetic-free, but has more difficulty with the vocals. Her face shines throughout as she injects Winnie Mandela with charm and eventual ferocity. She, unfortunately, frequently struggles with her accent. It often sounds as though she’s chewing her words and letting them slowly dribble out. Harris improves as Winnie’s resolve cracks and she becomes a militant leader of the MUFC. One scene where she is drumming up support for the movement features her bellowing in a terrifying manner and I wondered where this passion was hiding in her previous scenes. I would like to see Harris in a similarly meaty role without the nuisance of an accent.
Mandela’s main downfalls are Chadwick’s uninspired direction and William Nicholson’s paint-by-numbers script. The story is told mainly in bullet points with some archival footage and stills used to tighten up the transitions. This is pure pedestrian filmmaking. The uninitiated may be taken with the epic nature of Nelson Mandela’s journey from activist lawyer to South African president, but they would do better to read one of the many books on the subject.