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Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

23/01/2014 17:47 GMT | Updated 25/03/2014 09:59 GMT

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In the epoch of the twitterati - when culture is more and more served to us in palatable, postmodern, bite-sized fragments, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is pure old-school - providing the grand narrative of a life very much in the style of the epic film of yore - think Ghandi or Ben-Hur, for instance.

The danger is that the sheer girth of such a film - which stands at a whopping 152 minutes - can easily become ponderous or overwrought. Furthermore, its subject was a man who - at the time of his death late last year - was almost universally revered; any film about Mandela's life, then, invariably invites the risk of teetering into hagiography - of creatively delivering a saint rather than a living, breathing individual.

Thankfully, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom avoids these pitfalls. Despite a sense of lingering historical grandeur, the pace of the film is punchy, and it provides us with a Mandela who is very much a flesh and blood creation, and certainly not without his flaws. In the early part of the film, for example, we are presented with a young Mandela who is in many ways apolitical; he disdains the ANC and instead hopes to get rich through his law career. He is an avid womaniser and he treats his first wife quite callously.

In the nights, he hits the vibrant, colourful subterranean dance halls in a poverty-stricken township of Johannesburg, but the joys and freedoms of clandestine counter-culture are nevertheless overshadowed by the presence of apartheid which hangs over the lives of black South Africans like a nightmare.

And in this film apartheid itself emerges as one of the key characters; a sinister, spectral presence which is perpetually present even in the moments of intimacy or joy or solidarity which punctuate the story-line. And apartheid doesn't just dehumanise its victims with its stark brutality; its perpetrators are also demeaned, for they emerge as hate-filled, twisted, and irredeemable - figures driven to commit atrocity after atrocity in order to ensure the unworldly, parasitic basis of a grotesque social system.

This is made palpable in the incarceration scenes. When Mandela and comrades are sentenced to life in prison, the state regime discards the flimsiest façade of pretence; it is not about locking these men up for some abstract concern for law and order - it is about turning the screws on them, stripping them of their hope, notching up the level of suffering to a lingering slow-burn; in fact the regime is not so much disciplining the freedom fighters - it is exacting revenge on them.

The vileness of the jailers is thrown into relief by the nobility of the prisoners. The way in which the struggle for human dignity is centred on ordinary things - things which most of us take for granted - is intensely moving. The segregation persists in the prison - and the black prisoners are prevented from wearing long trousers like the rest; the right to wear long trousers, therefore, becomes the focus of a campaign. Idris Elba, who plays Mandela, delivers a remarkable performance, expressing, in that gentle, sing-song voice, the conviction and indomitable spirit of the man, and his warmth to others - alongside every graduation of anguish and loss the decades of incarceration provoke.

One of the many strengths of the film, in fact, is that it handles the enormity of having 27 years of your life wrenched from you - in a discrete and understated way. When Mandela sees his wife for the first time, the prison visit is brought to a close by the slamming shut of a black panel between them; we go from seeing Winnie's eyes shining with tears, to Nelson staring into the blackness, bereft - seeing only his own reflection, sitting in a room alone. It is a simple device. It is also heart-breaking.

But those who have read the novel on which this film is based will know that Mandela also had a sly sense of humour and an indelible sense of fun. This Elba brings out, with a wry twinkle in his eye, as we watch Mandela gently teasing his fellow prisoners, or later, as he takes obvious joy in out-foxing the Afrikaner politicians who are keen to win his favour.

The other sterling performance comes from Naomie Harris as Winnie Mandela. She reveals how Winnie's enforced isolation, and years of torment at the hands of the state apparatus, transform her from a young, idealistic social worker into a more corrosive figure; someone who has been eaten up by the blackness of her suffering.

The final part of the film is probably the weakest. Partly because it condenses some complex political themes - the divergence of views within the ANC itself on how to handle the transition from apartheid - into a very short space of time. But more than this, there is an ambiguity which overshadows the finale - it is not quite a moment of untrammelled victory or power to the people. You can't help but feel the presence of the South Africa of today - the inordinate level of corruption at the top and the grinding immiseration of the poor below; and you are aware - this is partially a result of the ANC, under Mandela's stewardship, opening up the country to neoliberal policy in the mid-1990s.

Nevertheless, this is a powerful and truthful film which rescues its subject from the sanitised, depoliticized version of Mandela many world leaders have recently sought to purvey - by refocussing on the heroic and often violent struggle for equality he helped enact.