Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

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Director: Justin Chadwick. Videovision/Distant Horizon/Origin Pictures/Pathe/Weinstein (12A)

DRAMA

Cast & Credits

Producer:  Anant Singh.
Writer: William Nicholson.
Camera: Lol Crawley.
Music: Alex Heffes.
Sets: Johnny Breedt.

Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Zolani Mkiva, Simon Mgowaza, Thapelo Mokoena, Jamie Bartlett, Deon Lotz, Terry Pheto, Carl Buekes, Andre Jacobs.

SYNOPSIS

Based on former South African President Nelson Mandela’s autobiography of the same name, this biopic chronicles the anti-apartheid campaigner’s life from his early days in a traditional African community in what was then part of Cape Province, to his emergence as an impassioned human rights activist and his imprisonment following this. Only during his later years, does he finally see black and white segregation abolished.

REVIEW

Much has been written recently about how black, British actors and directors are increasingly looking abroad to find work, due to the paucity of good, non-stereotypical roles and projects here (think about the glut of council estate ‘gangsta’ thrillers that creep onto UK screens). The Guardian’s Tom Seymour is one such journalist who has looked at this. And many of our best talent are now finding their feet squarely on American soil.

Idris Elba, who has starred in British TV productions such Luther but is more famous for his American work in dramas such as The Wire and films like Prometheus (2012) is one such actor who has decamped abroad with much success. Here, in a film blessed with the most fortuitous of release dates (Mandela’s death was announced during the film’s world premiere in London last year) he grabs what might be the role he will be remembered for (ironically, this is a co-British/South African production).

It is an Oscar worthy performance  and Elba cannot fail to come out of this anything other than wholly magisterial as an almost saintly Mandela. He nails Mandela’s very unique accent whilst never once looking anything like the man he is playing. Only once, when berating his first wife, does he wobble (and you can almost see his tongue working over time to get the glottal African pronunciation out).

This probably explains why Nelson in this film is muscular and throbbingly, naughtily sexual – we are under no illusions about his sex life. Mandela was obviously a good and frequent lay, if the smiles on his female co-stars faces are anything to go by. We are told at the start of the film that his given name as a child can be translated as ‘trouble-maker’, obvious considering the raucous glint in Elba’s eyes throughout.

The women in his life do manage to get something of a look in too – Harris is a mighty, warrior like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, his second and most famous (some would say controversial) wife. She comes to life in direct counterpoint to the patient and martyr-like suffering of her on-screen husband, a firebrand activist who would not be cowed by the abuse meted out by the South African regime of the day.

Pheto, as his first wife Evelyn, is not on screen long enough but manages to convey the poignancy of a politican’s wife sidelined to historical ignominy with the kids as her husband’s public profile sky-rockets.

What is a crying shame about Chadwick’s high profile movie is it never comes across as anything more than a slickly produced film version of a Wikipedia page. Indeed, we can learn more about what motivated the man internally and politically from that erstwhile, default information portal (the link is here for anyone who fancies a read through). Criticisms of the man, during and after his anti-apartheid fight, are kept largely at bay, presenting  a hagiographic, one-sided depiction of one of this and the last century’s most famous men. Of course, it is difficult for a film-maker to be too critical or even questioning when the subject and his close relatives are still active during the production.

The film is not with0ut merit – aside from the solid acting all round, the scenes that concentrate on the violence that was everyday life in the Soweto district and the start of what could have been civil war in South Africa are staged with an ‘up in your grill’ ferocity. There is some playful visual comparison too – from the teenage Mandela, freely running naked and painted white during a tribal ceremony to the imprisoned man clothed as a convict doing hard time, coated in the chalky dust of a quarry. But too often Chadwick and writer Nicholson hurtle us from one event to another, despite the luxurious running time (2 hours and 26 minutes) that would allow them the opportunity to slow down and let us catch our breath as they look into the bigger moments.

As if this isn’t enough, any celebratory atmosphere created by the film is completely obliterated by having Bono singing on the closing credits, when a joyous, traditional African song from Mandela’s home tribe would have been much more appropriate (and welcome).

 

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Skoonheid/Beauty (2011)

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Director: Oliver Hermanus. Moonlighting Films.

DRAMA

Producer: Didier Costet. Writer: Oliver Hermanus. Camera: Jamie Ramsay. Music: Ben Ludik. Sets: Johan Oosthuizen.

Deon Lotz, Charlie Keegan, Michelle Scott, Roeline Daneel, Sue Diepeveen, Albert Maritz.

SYNOPSIS

Francois (Lotz) owns a sucessful lumberyard and enjoys all the trappings of a middle-class life: a demanding, trophy wife (Scott), a big, mouldering house and the laborious 9-5 grind. That is until he sees Christian (Keegan), the handsome, charming, grown-up son of a former Army pal. Jolted out of his slumber by Christian’s stunning beauty, but repulsed by his own homosexuality, he sets about becoming closer to the young man, without revealing his true feelings.

REVIEW

The literal translation given here of the Afrikaans term Skoonheidt (pronounced Skwin-high) lends an inaccurate and misleading explanation of our lead character’s motivations. Another, fuller interpretation of the word could be that it means a ‘pure’ or ‘clean’; a subtle inflection that should add oodles more layers of emotional complexity to Hermanus visually impressive, barren sexual crisis drama. The sparks of chilling inventiveness he produces however helps only to mask the fact that the final result falls short of this.

Full plaudits therefore must go to Lotz who turns in a staggering, multi-faceted performance of tortured, obsessive longing. He’s a modern day Gustav von Aschenbach, the dying composer facing up to his own homosexual feelings in another aching study of the older man falling for a vision of youthful beauty, Visconti’s delicate Death in Venice.

And just as Dirk Bogarde, lingering on the Lido as cholera grips thar titular city, develops a note perfect performance at a distance from the object of his affections, so does Lotz. The deep, penetrating stares from secluded locations, sideways looks stolen when Christian’s attention is elsewhere, sweating and panting as he goes to more humiliating steps to keep him firmly fixed in his gaze. Bogarde might not have stooped to buying ipods and then faking Christian’s girlfriend’s car being stolen, but Lotz likewise becomes more of a revelation as his repressed existence slowly unravels.

From the prolonged, opening shot of Francois staring across a crowded room, his eyes resting on Christian for the first time; Hermanus is in control of a carefully constructed mise en scene of isolated misery.

The amusingly awkward, illicit sex meet for closeted men in the outback makes it clear that Francois is not the only middle aged man in this hetero heartland to have such hidden longings. Immediately afterwards, the shots of vast, isolated fields and empty cars correlate well with the emotional void in these men’s lives.

The physical relief Francois et al feel from this danger sex is hammered home even further by the sterility of their martial beds; Francois’ grasping, vain and silly wife nags him to clean the pool and do something with their huge house, though she too is having an affair in what also looks like a house away from prying eyes. His home is always totally dark; Francois hides in the shadows both in public and in private.

Despite this awesome grasp of the visual side of the film, it still fails to rise to the occasion. It is a shame that Hermanus does not push harder in showing how a glimpse of beauty causes the torpid, ordered life of the older man to crumble in spectacular, tragic fashion (his wife nags, but is everything else really that bad for him)? We have seen this done before and with more devestating effect; Hermanus is unable or perhaps unwilling to fully drag Francois down into the repulsion he feels for himself.

Keegan is a heart-stoppingly attractive counterpoint to the hulking, pale and hairy Lotz. A tanned, buffed gym bunny who continually seems to emerge out of nowhere as if he were an angel stopping off for a few hours whilst his cloud is being serviced in a celestial garage (he even drives to rescue a drunk Francois from a Cape Town gay bar). Contrasted with Francois’ vicious sexuality and, as the title of the film suggests, he is presented as almost virginal, beyond mere human sex. His sweetness is exacerbated by his ambivalent flirtatiousness, naively leading his sexually enraged “Uncle” on to a devastating denouement.

A difficult but rewarding watch.

In English and Afrikaans with subtitles.