mon 08/08/2022

Mrs Mandela, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Mrs Mandela, BBC Four

Mrs Mandela, BBC Four

Sophie Okonedo shines in the title role, but 90 minutes of apartheid hell is heavy going

Early on in Michael Samuels’ unremittingly sombre film about Winnie Mandela, the star-crossed heroine made the observation that being married to Nelson meant you were also married to “the struggle”, and would inevitably end up in Nelson’s shadow. So it proved. Even as she went to meet Nelson (David Harewood) as he was finally released after 27 years in jail, Winnie (Sophie Okonedo) was advised to learn from the example of Prince Philip and the way he walks dutifully one step behind the Queen.

With her husband sweating it out either in hiding or subsequently in Robben Island prison, Winnie was left to carve out her own role and identity as best she could, and over 90 minutes, Samuels dragged us through her decades of hell under the jackboot of apartheid. The thuggishness and small-mindedness of the security forces was forcefully evoked in repeated scenes of violent nocturnal raids on Winnie’s home, and in the way every sentence of her conversations with Nelson when she visited him in prison was tauntingly picked over and questioned by the guards. David Morrissey (pictured below), playing spittle-flecked interrogator Major Swanepoel, vibrated with turbo-charged hatred as he threatened her with “things I don’t like doing to women”. Leaving these unshown allowed them to grow disturbingly in the imagination.

As a saga of bravery in the face of unremitting police state brutality the story compelled pity and respect, but ultimately Mrs Mandela was too linear and one-paced to qualify as classic drama. Even under conditions like these there must have been emotional nuances and some kind of human ebb and flow as Winnie struggled to raise her children and establish herself as a credible representative of the leader-in-exile. And, one must assume, there was a far richer supporting cast of friends and fellow-strugglers than the one that was sketchily portrayed here. It felt like we were seeing the eggshell rather than the egg.

Morrissey_smallThough the piece gained texture and atmosphere from its South African locations, the sense that the whole operation depended on three or four central characters plus a crowd of extras created the precarious sense that it was running on four bald tyres and might slither into the ditch at any moment. When Okonedo and Harewood visited BBC One’s Breakfast programme for a pre-broadcast plug, host Bill Turnbull commented that it proved you could still make great drama on a small budget. The actors’ wincing response suggested this was a sore point.

As Nelson, Harewood’s enforced absences at the state’s pleasure curbed his opportunities for dramatic fireworks, and frankly Rory Bremner does a vastly superior Mandela voice. However, Okonedo stood tall as she progressed from youthful idealism to battered stubbornness and, finally, to the brutalised state that led her to instigate the murder of supposed informer Stompie Seipei, even if the abused-becomes-the-abuser link was crudely drawn. It made an ugly conclusion to a bitter and exhausting story.


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