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Review: ‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is at its heart a love story of what one man had taken from him and what one woman had to endure to survive apartheid.

The movie is long at 146 minutes, covering the life of Nelson Mandela (played by Idris Elba) from his childhood in the rural Eastern Cape to being inaugurated as South Africa's first democratically elected President.

Despite the length the movie does not have the chance to spend too much time on any one period or situation in Mandela's life, and while that may disappoint some who know the story for skipping over significant moments, it does keep the pace up. Winnie Mandela (Naomie Harris) reflects the difficulty of trying to maintain a relationship with a man only allowed one visitor and one letter every six months. Mandela did not get to see his children until they were 16, after having last seen them at age four. His torment of isolation is countered with the constant harassment and abuse by the security police that Winnie Mandela was subjected to. She remarks that the fact she is routinely arrested for questioning just before her children are due home to ensure they arrive to an empty home highlights the effort made to make her life hell.

As Nelson Mandela considers a future for South Africa based on temperance and the need for peace, Winnie only becomes more hateful of the system that has destroyed her life and those of her fellow black South Africans. Harris plays the role of the beautiful and strong Winnie Mandela well, she has fire in her eyes and the power of her shouts of 'Amandla' are not what you would think could come from such a small frame. The make-up is also well done to reflect how well Winnie Mandela maintained a youthful and unbowed demeanour despite the circumstances and advancing years.

The screenplay includes some wonderful lines which convey in their few words significant meaning and context for the events they describe. After Mandela undertakes to divorce Winnie, he says that what was done to Winnie was one of the few victories the apartheid government had over him, illustrating how they had grown apart as she became more militant in her response to the system, while he had moved towards negotiation.

Another line during initial talks with the National Party government showed an astute Mandela acknowledge that the apartheid government army was one of the most powerful in Africa, but that there were 30 million citizens willing to oppose and fight them, requiring another solution to the stalemate position of conflict.

Mandela's character is well portrayed, showing his physical strength, intellect and cunning in dealing with situations but also genuine interest and ability to recall details about those around him, including his enemies, that was both endearing and disarming. It also showed his flaws in cheating on his first wife, being stubborn and acting unilaterally.

Elba does well to capture Mandela for having a physical presence and speaking in a way that demands attention without being loud or aggressive. The make-up adds to the storytelling without needing to have dates or age displayed on screen and Elba's changes to his movement reflect how the advancing years claimed some of Mandela's physique but not his stature.

The cast is almost all South African with the exception of the two leading roles, but the lead roles are so dominant that the other roles are in effect only small parts in the movie. The supporting cast do well to complete the picture without appearing too superficial to make sense.

The two principal support characters that develop over time are fellow inmate and ANC stalwart Ahmed Kathrada (Riaad Moosa) and prison warder James Gregory (Jamie Bartlett). Moosa's character brings some levity to the understandably serious tone of the movie as well as voicing the opposition to Mandela's unilateral negotiations. It is difficult to stand out when you are in shot but don't get to say much, but Moosa manages to add to the scenes without highlighting the limited time for such a central character in the story of South Africa.

Bartlett's character highlights the charm of Mandela to turn even a hardened system-supporting racist to change his point of view. The significant role of Walter Sisulu (Tony Kgoroge) is also ably portrayed with the minimum of presence. It is a pity that such critical characters could not be shown more fully.

A significant challenge to producers would be recreating the scenes covering such a long timeframe which they manage with small hints such as the make and model of cars to show the time progression. One item that does stand out as a small oversight is the Rivonia trial courtroom scene shot in the actual courtroom at the Palace of Justice. Mandela delivers his iconic speech before sentencing with a very modern microphone in front of him.

It is an important movie to watch for South Africans who need reminding of how oppressive apartheid was and that its legacy will take generations to address and overcome. It also illustrates the sacrifice South Africans have been willing to make to see justice done, while always striving for an inclusive society even when they were subjected to the worst treatment by the ruling white government. I hope it is an international success that allows us to make more movies about the other heroes whose story is yet to be told.

The movie releases on South African screens today.

Colin Cullis has spent 15 years with Primedia Broadcasting - for most of it he has been looking for great stories and getting them on the radio, these days he is taking those stories to other platforms and on occasion trying to tell them in 140 characters or less. He is still working on that one.

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