THE dismantling of apartheid resembled those other 20th century political juggernauts, the Bolshevik revolution and Mao Tse Tung’s long march, that unfolded before there was instant media to deliver them into our living rooms.
But with a longer gestation leading to democracy rather than a dictatorship. And more powerful world-wide exposure
Justin Chadwick’s film uses William Nicholson’s screenplay adapting Nelson Mandela’s account of decades of political life. Running for 147 minutes, it concentrates perforce on the personal aspects and public events that became news rather than intimate back stories. The result is a film built from brief moments, visual implications rather than detailed dialogue-based explanations and interspersed with longer sequences in which orations, sermons and homilies recount the seminal moments in Mandela’s political career.
The film rather glosses over the less-palatable passages (including terrorist events committed while Mandela was in prison) that history will take a while to judge.
Idris Elba gives a sublime portrayal of Mandela – body language, vocal timbre, clarity of diction, combining in a verity persuading us that we are watching the real deal. As second wife Winnie, Naomie Harris is impressive. In a relatively small performance, David Butler as Robben Island commandant Col. Badenhorst, wealthy enough to retire but getting too much pleasure from unfettered, unquestioned power to inflict physical and emotional sadism, provides an over-arching allegory for the myriad anguishes that apartheid inflicted on South Africa’s black people.
Visually discomforting backlighting flags idyllic reminiscences from Nelson’s past. Students of his life’s historical realities will perhaps detect bias in the telling of his story. Where available, archival footage provides the big ticket moments. None of the speed bumps in the film’s progress diminishes its essential power.
At all cinemas