Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela and Gys de Villiers as FW De Klerk in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

27 April

 

 

Freedom Day, South Africa

Today is Freedom Day in South Africa. It marks the day in 1994 when South Africa went to the polls in the first national elections open to all races. Voting lasted for three days, with people lining up patiently in long queues to take their turn and get their hand stamped in indelible ink. The African National Congress won the election, with just over 62% of the nearly 20 million votes cast and, Nelson Mandela became the country’s president, its first black leader.

 

 

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013, dir: Justin Chadwick)

On the day that this film had its world premiere in London – just as the screening was about to start, in fact – two of Nelson Mandela’s children, who were attending, learned that their father had died. The screening went ahead and when it had finished the audience were also told what had happened. There was then a spontaneous two-minute silence as a mark of respect for Mandela’s life. That sort of thing is fine in real life, but does no favours for a film, which needs to keep moving forwards and to stand on its own merits. More to the point, Mandela’s death eclipsed the film about his life. Which is a pity because it is a very good film – unusually good for a biopic. Reasons why are various, but director Justin Chadwick’s experience directing period drama for TV must be a big factor. He made the BBC’s Bleak House, an adaptation of Charles Dickens, so understands how important it is not be awe-struck in the face of the iconic. Idris Elba also seems to get this too. His Mandela is a very human person, even if he is forced, due to time restrictions, to jump quickly through the hoops and age very quickly – attractive partying lawyer in the late 1940s to political firebrand in the early 1960s to defiant prisoner to greying statesman in waiting – and Elba gets the voice (surely the most recognisable on the planet) just right. Chadwick meanwhile is in Richard Attenborough mode – crowd scenes, period detail, extravagant speeches, big events seen from a personal perspective – and for some the lack of more “politics” and the broad brush is going to seem like an opportunity missed. What exactly prompted white South Africa to start making overtures towards a man who was essentially tucked away out of harm’s way? Was it the international campaign to free him? The fall of the Iron Curtain? The sporting bans and pariah status of the country? We don’t find out.

To compensate we see more of Winnie Mandela’s story than a more timid film would have dared to cover. Winnie the fighter, who made some terrible decisions, is portrayed as the one who got her hands dirty while her husband had, to some extent, the easier option of being removed from that sort of dirty daily compromise – it’s easy to be virtuous when you’re out of the way of temptation. Naomie Harris is an amazingly good Winnie; better than Elba in fact, and in a far tougher role.

If you don’t know who Nelson Mandela is, or what he did, this film won’t fill in many gaps – it is necessarily an episodic jaunt through largely familiar territory. Where it excels is in its portrayal of the forging of Mandela’s noble character, how it was entirely infectious and won over the most sceptical, bitter foe. And it makes a slightly unfashionable case for leaders leading from the top down. It’s a tough genre, the biopic, with serial killers usually getting a better go of it than people like Mandela, who usually end up being treated as saints. It is to the film’s great credit that it doesn’t do that. Instead Long Walk to Freedom is, like the man himself, firm but fair.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Idris Elba and Naomie Harris’s great performances
  • An epic biopic beautifully handled
  • The taut screenplay by William Nicholson (Gladiator)
  • Justin Chadwick’s brisk unsentimental direction

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom – at Amazon

 

 

 

28 April 2014-04-28

Robert Redford in All Is Lost

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

All Is Lost (Universal, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

JC Chandor’s Margin Call was a brilliant debut, a great piece of storytelling which turned the complexities of the financial crash into a gripping human interest drama. Now he’s made All Is Lost, also a brilliant film, though as different superficially as they come. Instead of the high-tech, glass and steel, manmade world of finance, it takes place out on the high seas. And instead of a dialogue-driven screenplay there’s almost no speech at all. And yet a sense of jeopardy drives All Is Lost, as it did Margin Call, this newer film telling the tale of a lone yachtsman whose boat is holed after accidentally hitting a passing container (the seas are full of them, apparently), and who then spends the next few days trying to navigate, fix the boat, pump out the water, repair the radio and so on, while being battered by storms, menaced by aquatic wildlife and all the while sailing closer to the moment when he’s going to slide under the waves and die.

It’s obviously a film for lovers of adventure, but there is something here for nearly everyone else too. Robert Redford fans get to see him put in his best performance since the 1970s – and he barely speaks a word. Admirers of the older gent will marvel at Redford’s nimbleness. Now nudging 80, he’s able to climb over and under, shimmy, swim and perform various other feats that take us into spoiler territory. Lovers of cool intelligent cinematography will admire Chandor’s careful and unmelodramatic shots which slightly call to mind the vast oceanscapes of Life of Pi. And there’s even the meta-aspect of the entire thing – the white, blameless, resourceful, persistently optimistic ageing Wasp male caught up in a disaster that is none of his responsibility, piloting a large piece of luxury kit the likes of which the rest of humanity can only envy? Of course it is. Thankfully, Chandor simply puts this meta-business up on the screen and lets us take it down for inward digestion, if we want to. Meanwhile he’s drip-feeding us one of the simplest, most effective high-concept thrillers in years.

All Is Lost – at Amazon

 

 

 

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Fox, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/Digital)

When it comes to biopics, serial killers often get a better ride than the great and the good, who tend to be reduced to single-focus automatons or martyrs. So when the subject is already considered a saint? Amazingly, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom avoids almost all of the pitfalls of the biopic. It is surprisingly good, in other words. Following Mandela from his time as a rakish womaniser practising law in apartheid South Africa of the 1940s, to his political awakening, then his years of firebrand rabble-rousing, his incarceration in 1963 and, finally, his release in 1990, Justin Chadwick’s film has a lot of ground to cover. So it is necessarily episodic. Idris Elba is too young to play the older man but he makes a solid, uncontroversial and convincing Mandela. Naomie Harris, meanwhile, plays Winnie, the wife who would get into hot water while Nelson was doing time on Robben Island. If Elba is good, Harris is remarkable, and because of Winnie’s dalliance with the dark side (the tyre necklaces and so on) the film threatens at every point to become more about her than him – because his journey was essentially internal, which is not easy to put into pictures. Reminiscent of Richard Attenborough at his best – big, bold, unafraid to compress time – this is one of the best biopics for years.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom – at Amazon

 

 

 

American Hustle (EV, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

God, I was looking forward to seeing this. Those trailers, all co-ordinated “we hustle” sashaying set to a Led Zeppelin shuffle, they looked so sexy and dangerous. In fact David O Russell’s drama about 1970s grifters digresses terribly into Scorsese pastiche early on and then loses itself in the fog. I’m so disappointed. It’s the story of a pair of con artists – tacky, toupee-wearing Christian Bale and slinky jug of sex Amy Adams, seconded by Bradley Cooper’s FBI guy in an attempt to break open an unholy alliance between the Mob and elected politicians. I think. I’m slightly unsure because the film seems more intent on getting its look right than telling its story. However, the look is where it excels and there is much cinematic joy to be had from ogling the clothes and admiring the sets, as well as taking in the prowling camera, the soundtrack, the greatness again of Jennifer Lawrence as Bale’s blowsy pout of a wife. It just really isn’t what the trailer promised – which was a bang-bang pumping rock-style story. Instead it’s like its actual on-screen soundtrack – Monk, Ella, Duke and Sinatra – all jazz curlicues and moments of fitful brilliance sparkling among the modal vamping. It has those long, verbose scenes that have become de rigueur since Scorsese was thrown off the throne by Tarantino. And it does have really great performances all over the place, even the small ones – Louis CK as Cooper’s nebbish boss. Jeremy Renner as the local mayor, like a mini-me Liberace in his silly bouffant hair. It’s good, don’t get me wrong. But it meanders, it doesn’t motor. I feel conned. Appropriately.

American Hustle – at Amazon

 

 

 

Big Bad Wolves (Metrodome, cert 18, DVD)

Big Bad Wolves is a big bad film out of Israel. It’s a comedy so black that it actually feels wrong to bracket it with other comedies. Starting off with a child kidnapped by a paedophile and alluding, at one point, to the extermination of six million Jews via a scene in which the smell of burning flesh is conjured using a blowtorch and a handily trussed up paedo-suspect, it really isn’t messing about on the nursery slopes of bad taste. Tarantino loves it, so the press blurb says. And you can see why – the central sequence is essentially this one guy strapped in a chair while two other guys wax verbose about how they’re going to hurt him without killing him. Do they find the missing girl? I can’t say. Is it funny? Not even slightly. Is it good? A tough one. Though if you like your gruesome served up with a side order of whimsy, and a soundtrack that wouldn’t be amiss on Desperate Housewives, fill your boots.

Big Bad Wolves – at Amazon

 

 

 

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (Paramount, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

I’ve just re-read my notes to Anchorman 1 and my first impression was that it was a five minute Saturday Night Live sketch expanded to well beyond its terminal point. Anchorman 2 is exactly the same, a “let’s get the band back together” prelude eventually yielding to one absurd scenario after another in which Will Ferrell’s moustachioed TV newsman somehow becomes the hero of the hour in spite of the fact that he’s an idiot of the first water. This time around we’re in the 1980s, where Ron appears to be accidentally inventing Fox News and the entire rolling news format. That’s the end of the plot details bit. Returning guests include the original team of Ron’s dimbulb mates – Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner – and their often improvisational riffing really helps make this more than a one-man show. Also helping things along is the soundtrack, full of 70s/80s tunes chosen to make a point about the dopiness of the era – Ride Like the Wind, Muskrat Love and so on. I won’t mention the cameo-stuffed repeat of the fight scene from the first film, since it actually fails to strike any sparks at all, in spite of all those famous faces. Instead hold out for the blooper real, which only actually makes sense if you’ve watched the film. It is by far the best bit of the entire thing.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues – at Amazon

 

 

 

Bastards (Artificial Eye, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

The genius French director Claire Denis (see Beau Travail and just be amazed) doesn’t usually do “genre”. But that’s exactly what she’s up to with this revenge thriller that feels to me as if she’s pausing for breath and recharging the creative batteries. The basic story is Get Carter – a guy (the magnificently implacable Vincent Lindon) seeking payback to avenge the niece who’s been sexually mistreated by a ring of powerful men – though Denis loads the whole thing up with misdirection, a brooding score from Tindersticks, plus what seems like an unrelated story about the odd super-rich couple who live upstairs from Lindon, until watching the film starts to resemble the experience of our questing, uncomprehending hero. Whether he is a hero at all is also part of it. And who exactly the “bastards” of the title are seems also to be moot. It is probably going to be a little too cool and oblique for some tastes, but any film from Denis (White Material possibly excepted) is worth devouring.

Bastards – at Amazon

 

 

 

Ace in the Hole (Eureka, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

A restoration of Billy Wilder’s classic 1951 melodrama about a busted newspaperman who happens upon a great story – a man trapped in a mine – and then manipulates the guy and his rescue (prolonging it unnecessarily) to make the story better. Kirk Douglas plays the antihero, appearing in the opening scene in a broken down car being towed through a decent small town, for the metaphor hounds, before cutting through the rest of the film like a dose of caustic soda. It’s a great performance, which makes no sense for the first half hour or so – why is he shouting all the time? – but eventually the film starts to conform to Douglas’s character, bad, which is the entire point of the thing. The restoration is fantastic, better, even, for what it’s done to the brassy honk of the soundtrack than for the way it’s revealed Charles Lang’s original cinematography. Stark black and white, just like the morality on display. “I’ve met a lot of hard boiled eggs in my life.” says Jan Sterling, the dubious dame Douglas hasn’t yet slapped but will, “But you, you’re 20 minutes.” There’s plenty more where that came from, oh yes.

Ace in the Hole – at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014