To play the role of such a beloved global icon as South African political activist and later president Nelson Mandela is already, by the mere notion of it, a daunting task for any actor in any project. But from the outset Justin Chadwick's film of Mandela's own autobiography Long Walk to Freedom compounds the challenge, with he and screenwriter William Nicholson moving at breakneck speed through a first act that, in no overblown exaggeration, sprints through Mandela's early life. There are a couple of glimpses, quite literally so, of a younger Nelson, as a child and then a teen, but Chadwick and Nicholson waste no time in getting into his adult life. But even once Idris Elba makes his first appearance, earlier than one would expect in a non-flashback format, as the adult Nelson, the pace doesn't let up, racing through dates and bullet point events in his professional life (his law career), personal life (his first marriage, to Evelyn, played by Terry Pheto; the rampant infidelities that wrecked it; his union with second wife Winnie, fiercely played by Naomie Harris), and, perhaps most importantly, political life, from his initial reluctance to join the African National Congress to his eventual emergence as the organization and the entire anti-Apartheid movement's charismatic face and authoritative voice.
So, given the years-spanning speed of this initial passage of the film, the casting of the Nelson Mandela role is even that more of a challenge. Beyond mere acting ability, it is perhaps even more critical for his portrayer to possess a certain commanding, captivating presence in order to forge any sort of connection with the viewer amid the veritable whirlwind of events. As he has long proven in his body of work, big and small, Elba has that effortlessly emblematic quality in spades, and his ever-forceful presence and personality offers the crucially consistent context to remain engaged, even if, particularly for non-South African viewers, the exact historical context of any given incident isn't always conveyed in the clearest of fashion.
But if Elba's charisma is undoubtedly a major factor in why he initially attracted attention and became a star, it is his formidable acting talents that have and will continue to help that status endure, and in an odd way the picture is structured to affirm that fact. The first act, in all of its rapid run through history, imparts all of the cursory backstory both on Nelson and South Africa's political climate as a whole, but also establishes that potential within the young, charismatic, idealistic Nelson to be an iconic figure of lasting importance. Once Nelson and comrades-in-arms Walter Sisulu (Tony Kgoroge, lending solid support) and Ahmed Kathrada (Riaad Moosa, ably taking on a change-of-pace non-comic role) are sentenced to life in prison, with the incarceration comes an appropriately less frantic pace--and as such establishing the double-edged purpose of this phase: much like the real-life Nelson's character was built during all those years behind literal and, later, figurative bars, so does this section of the film allow Elba build, as an actor, the Nelson character. Even in such trying circumstances, Nelson's leadership qualities never flag but instead flourish, his hopeful vision for revolution and change through unwavering strength and pressure but without aggression becoming all the more clear. It would be expected, and perhaps understandable, to play this evolving self-actualization as something akin to a superhero origin, given what we now know about Nelson's life to the present day. But this is where Chadwick's casting of and trust in Elba pays off brilliantly. For all his imposing, intimidating physical stature, Elba excels in exposing, in the most understated yet eloquent ways, the vulnerabilities that slip through the cracks in otherwise stoic veneers, not impossible to largely suppress but impossible to completely deny, his eyes always telling the tale even when not in the rare occasion they are shedding tears. It is through Elba's finely etched performance that the real thesis of the film comes to the fore: it is not (only) his seemingly superhuman fortitude, but above all else Nelson Mandela's universally relatable core of less steely humanity that defines his heroism.
And this carries through into the film's final phase, where the character--in every sense of the term--built during the 27-year prison sentence is tested in every conceivable way upon Nelson's release, best embodied by Winnie, who at this point has not only grown emotionally distant from her husband but, after fighting alongside her people in their intensifying struggle all those years, grown ideologically so. The old age makeup on Elba is initially jarring, but however distracting it may be, it makes all the more apparent that his Nelson is a truly from-the-inside-out performance, both the intense thought and soul-deep feeling always powerfully, sometimes painfully shining through. However many layers of greasepaint and latex are troweled onto his face, by this point Elba has the viewer in complete thrall, whether through the pain of Nelson's crumbling marriage and the now first-hand witnessing of his people's suffering, cleverly outsmarting the powers that be in arcane political negotiations, or, ultimately, the joy and hope that comes with the long-awaited and infinite promise of a new day. Madiba's still-ongoing walk to freedom is indeed a long one, but with Elba leading the way, it is one that is rewarding and rendered richly relevant to everyone's life journey to any destination.
--Michael Dequina, November 6, 2013
AFI Fest presented by Audi 2013 Special Screening
November 10, 2013
South African Premiere
November 3, 2013
Justin Chadwick & Alex Heffes interview
November 10, 2013
Movie Production Notes
Very special thanks to:
American Film Institute
The Weinstein Company