The filmmakers have taken a conventional line, chronologically speaking, which gives this biopic an old-fashioned look.
The problem is politics. There was too much of it in South Africa in the 50s and 60s and not enough screen time to untangle the wrangles.
The result is Mandela Lite, bits and pieces of the great man’s rise to iconhood, from country boy to Soweto lawyer to ANC activist to Robben Island, to freedom’s gift of international adulation.
The whites are portrayed as arrogant and vicious – police, prison guards, the racist rich. Only near the end when the writing is on the wall and men like De Klerk have the courage to read it do they soften their attitude towards ‘kaffirs’, using Mandela as their Get Out Of Jail Free card, although, ironically, he was the one who spent half a lifetime behind bars.
The film touches the corners of the envelope without revealing what is inside.
Mandela’s colleagues in the party and in prison are sketched lightly in crayon. Winnie’s (Naomie Harris) work in the townships is glimpsed in passing.
She is arrested, tortured and flung into solitary for more than a year. Later, when her supporters are accused of tyre collar killings and a civil war between blacks appears imminent, as the country slides dangerously towards chaos, Mandela goes on television to plead for forgiveness and peace,
Idris Elba (Stringer Bell from The Wire and DCI John Luther in Luther), an East End boy with African roots, gives an honourable performance as Mandela, avoiding the polished veneer in favour of dust and grit. He is too tall and well built for the role, like Liam Neeson in Rob Roy, towering above the minions, and yet with intelligence and commitment seasons well into the wise old man of recent years.
Long Walk To Freedom is not a blackwash. It is well made, sincere and one-sided. It should prick tears from your eyes. Instead, it speaks in a soft voice.