Like many biographical films, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a better primer-for-the-uninitiated than an in-depth, fresh and insightful examination of a famous and remarkable life. The story of South Africa’s iconic Nelson Mandela, who died Dec. 5, would have been better served with a mini-series: There’s so much crammed into this 139-minute movie that it often leaps from one event to the next too swiftly to make much of an emotional impact.
Still, Mandela is worth watching even if you’re familiar with the recent history of the country, because the film is well-cast and the story itself is so powerful. Touching only briefly on Mandela’s childhood in a tiny village, it races quickly to his time in the early 1940s as an attorney in Johannesberg and arrives swiftly at the moment he becomes disillusioned with the effectiveness of peaceful protests against the increasingly repressive white government. In response he and his colleagues in the African National Congress, a liberation movement demanding equal rights for blacks, grow more militant and are forced into hiding.
Viewers who only know Mandela — who was eventually arrested, convicted and spent 27 years in prison labeled as a terrorist — as the gentle-seeming older man of the recent past may be surprised by the film’s portrayal of Mandela the revolutionary. But director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) and screenwriter William Nicholson try hard not to make their subject too saintly; their Mandela knows there’s a cost to the violence he perpetrates. He’s also something of a ladies’ man who casually cheats on his first wife and destroys his marriage.
Idris Elba (Pacific Rim, the Thor films but most famously in David Simon’s seminal HBO series The Wire) turns out to be a fine choice to play Mandela: He’s both physical and thoughtful, a man of passion who comes to understand the need for practicality. As his fiery second wife Winnie, a revolutionary in her own right, Naomie Harris (Skyfall) comes close to stealing the movie. Oppressed, imprisoned, humiliated, she only grows angrier and more militant as the years pass. The film touches on their relationship, most of which was spent apart, and the rift that grew between them (upon his eventual release, Mandela espoused a more peaceful solution, the movie tells us, while his wife continued to support violence in the name of change). Their relationship is so intriguing it demands more attention, but a movie has only so much room, and the relationship is a casualty of the need for a decent running time.
The fact that the man who spent 27 years in prison went on to change his world enough to become president of South Africa in 1994 is still amazing, and watching Mandela, you will certainly marvel at the way the world can change. But you’ll also wonder what could have been, cinematically speaking.
Cast: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Terry Pheto.
Director: Justin Chadwick.
Screenwriter: William Nicholson. Based on a book by Nelson Mandela.
Producer: Anant Singh.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 139 minutes. Some intense sequences of violence and disturbing images, sexual content and brief strong language. Opens Wednesday Dec. 25 at area theaters.