Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Rush was a serviceable car racing movie, but it was a rather boring biopic, because Rush split the difference between two Formula 1 drivers, James Hunt and Niki Lauda. It would have worked a lot better if it had been either a movie about Hunt, or a movie about Lauda, but making it about both ended up short-changing everyone and character-wise it felt, well, rushed. You didn’t really come to care about either character because, due to time constraints, neither really existed as an independent person. They were just a mish-mash of clichés that hung off of each other. Then there was The Butler, which was also serviceable but ultimately flat because it attempted to cover entirely too much time. If Lee Daniels wanted to tell the story of White House butler Cecil Gaines’ fascinating forty year career, he would have been better off doing so in a ten-part HBO miniseries. If he just wanted to tell us about Cecil Gaines, then he needed to ground the story in one place and time and not bother showing us a bushel of presidents. It was too much for two hours.
I bring these two movies up because Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom combines the best (worst?) of both of those problems. Directed by Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) and starring Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela and Naomi Harris (Skyfall) as Winnie Mandela, Mandela has too much going on to do justice to either of its subjects.
Following Nelson Mandela over the course of his life, two and half hours is just not enough to encompass everything Mandela went through and achieved. Again, if you want to chronicle his whole life, do it in a mini-series where you can give proper attention to the different phases of his life. Otherwise, limit the scope to show us his character through specific interactions. From there we can extrapolate the rest. Mandela feels rushed at times, as they have to jump off interesting plot points in order to get to the next Happening in Mandela’s life. Likewise, Winnie Mandela’s narrative gets the short end of the stick—I don’t know anything about her but she seems really interesting and I kept wanting to go back to Winnie when the plot insisted on moving on.
This is not to say Mandela is a bad movie. It isn’t. It’s well made from a technical standpoint and Chadwick doesn’t do anything annoying with his camera (unlike in The Other Boleyn Girl) so it’s pleasant to watch. And Harris and Elba give great performances—Elba, particularly, is really spectacularly good. The force of his charisma and his will almost ruthlessly overrides the film’s flaws so that it ends up more enjoyable than it has a right to be. You just can’t help but feel that a life like Nelson Mandela’s—and Winnie Mandela’s, for that matter—can’t be contained in two and a half hours.
Kill Your Darlings
On the other side of this fence, Kill Your Darlings chooses a singular event in beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s life and uses it to illustrate his formative years as a writer. First time features writer/director John Krokidas limits his story (co-written with fellow Yale grad Austin Bunn) to 1944 and the murder of David Krammerer, for which Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Lucien Carr were arrested as suspects. Though no performance in Darlings comes close to Elba’s work in Mandela, on the whole Darlings is the more satisfying movie as it tells a more complete narrative and doesn’t have the same rushing-through-the-important-bits feeling as Mandela.
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, who is turning into a proper good actor, as Ginsberg and Dane DeHaan as the charismatic Carr, Darlings is an attractive period piece anchored by Radcliffe and DeHaan. It’s weirdly sanitized, though, given that it’s about experimentation of the sexual and narcotic kind, and that the major plot point is a murder for which all of Ginsberg’s friends are accused. It has a little bit the feel of kids playing dress up in their parents’ closet, which I put down to the greenness of the filmmakers, not the cast. Radcliffe has shown himself to be a bold and game actor, willing to go there for roles, and DeHaan has the kind of boundless energy that a more seasoned director could use to tap into some next level shit. Darlings never hits that next level, though, remaining a rather shallow, if enjoyable anyway, look at the formative years of the Beat generation.
Neither of these movies provides groundbreaking looks into their subjects, Mandela because there isn’t enough time and Darlings because it doesn’t get into the grit of the subject matter. But both have things to recommend them, particularly the acting, and even if they aren’t particularly memorable, they’re pleasant enough while you’re watching. Solid Bs, across the board.