Last Night’s TV – Mrs Mandela

by Lynn Connolly

I suspect that Sophie Okonedo is going to need to buy herself a little trophy cabinet. Well, a large trophy cabinet might be more to the point, given that she provided a performance that veritably set light to the screen as Winne Mandela.

She was aided of course by the writing and direction – both supplied by Michael Samuels – and the truth of the story itself provided a solid base from which to launch Okonedo. And she certainly achieved a great height.

Less commendable however was David Harewood as Nelson Mandela, but I felt a lot of it wasn’t actually his fault. His special effects/make-up didn’t age him well and his lines failed him too sometimes. But perhaps in some regard, those things were deliberate…

Harewood doesn’t even look remotely like Mandela, so one might argue that – as he was in fact a secondary character in this story – the need for accuracy wasn’t as great for him as it was for Winnie.

However, back to the main protagonist, and I must say, I’m biased about Okonedo because I’d give her an award if she appeared in a washing powder ad, because she’d probably deserve it. Sales, one imagines, of that brand would go through the roof; she’s just that convincing in anything she does.

And this tale of a woman who was victim turned aggressor could have failed quite dismally with anyone less commanding playing her.

Other points to be applauded included the sets, the attention to period detail and the subtlety of the timeline overlays. The latter being especially important since they weren’t so abrupt that we got lost in the when-and-hows, but they were equally not so diagrammatical that the audience was made to feel dumb.

And it is a chilling story of course, the ultimate corruption and heavy fall from grace of a woman to whom a nation once looked for a way forward. And as we saw in this film, she – like those who’d oppressed her and her fellow countrymen – used an horrific array of psychological and physical modes of torture to get what she wanted.

Winnie, one might argue, was made into the person she became as a result of the diametric opposites that had shaped her life. Once the loyal underdog, she became the treacherous alpha, but rather than use that new found power for good – as her husband had – she became corrupted by it and turned all that she’d learned of brutal rule on those who worshipped her and what they believed she stood for.

And Okonedo portrayed it all effortlessly to create a valuable piece of television that not only tells the story, it does so without bias and allows the viewer his/her own opinion.

If you missed it, you can catch it here on BBC’s iPlayer, and it’s well worth watching.

Lynn is an editor and writer here at Unreality TV and is trained psychotherapist and the author of two books. She's addicted to soaps, period drama and reality TV shows such as X Factor, I'm A Celeb and Big Brother.