7 February 2014 | TimMeade
Sprawling and Superficial
In Clint Eastwood's 2009 film, Invictus, there is a scene in which Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela absents himself from state business and heads off to a meeting of the Sports Council where he has been told they are passing a motion changing the name of the South African rugby team from the Springboks to the Proteas. It is put to him that he surely has more important things to worry about than the name of a sporting team. Mr Mandela disagrees.
He explains that, to the contrary, this is a crucial moment in the reconciliation of South Africans. He advises that during his long incarceration, he studied the Boer – their language, their culture, their poetry. He got inside their head to understand what made them tick, what motivated them. Through this study, he knew just how important the Springboks were to the white South Africans and that a name change would be a grievous error. Putting his authority on the line, he managed to overturn the original decision and retain the Springbok name.
This was a crucial scene in the film, demonstrating Mr Mandela's wisdom and erudition. A small vignette, it did much to explain Mr Mandela's character and why he proved so successful and commanded such respect following his release from prison.
Unfortunately, there was no similar moment in Justin Chadwick's Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.
The film took a sprawling, episodic approach to its subject's life and as such could only touch superficially on its aspects. Mr Mandela's first forty years were covered at break neck speed as we saw him pull himself up by his bootstraps to achieve a fine education, witness injustice and state sanctioned violence, then have his first marriage fail due to his commitment to the cause as well as his own infidelity. Only after his trial – at which he and his co-defendants fully expected to receive the death penalty – did the film take a breath and attempt a deeper approach. But even then, it missed its target.
Perhaps the most interesting story to emerge from this film was toward the end of Mr Mandela's imprisonment. Seeing the writing on the wall, the white minority government set up meetings with him to try and establish a power-sharing agreement acceptable to both sides. Nelson Mandela's fellow four prisoners all voted that he should not respond to these overtures, they saw it as a trap. Ignoring the strongly held views of people with whom he had fought alongside and been jailed with for over 20 years, Mr Mandela went his own way moving to upmarket and comfortable accommodation in a residential area . Here, he discussed with his jailers their country's future.
This was an episode ripe for exploring – how did his long-term prison friends and ANC members view this? Did they feel betrayed? Did the friendships endure or did they feel unable to forgive him? Did Mr Mandela himself suffer sleepless nights questioning his own actions and motives? We don't know. We were never made privy to their inner feelings or reactions. This was such a pity – I wanted to know so much more. Had the film concentrated more on this single aspect in its over long running time, it would have been so much more successful.
The film's direction, cinematography and acting were all competent. As Nelson Mandela, Idris Elba had a thankless job to show him ageing from a youthful man into old age – and he wasn't helped by ineffective make-up and talcum powder grey hair. But he lacked charisma and the film's script also failed to evoke the spirit of one of the greatest figures from the second half of the 20th century.
The film was average. Mr Mandela deserves better.