Due to a sad accident of history, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” arrives as not just a biography of the late leader but a memorial. Nelson Mandela’s recent death has burdened this conventional, high-minded, rather pedestrian movie with an unsought mantle of significance.
The film’s scope is vast, from Mandela’s youth as a rhetorical and literal bomb-thrower, through his 27 years of imprisonment, his release and his election as president of the nation that demonized and jailed him. As with most film biographies, the movie’s reach exceeds its grasp. It doesn’t capture Mandela’s political and cultural influence in full. What single film could do justice to such a dramatic and controversial life?
“Mandela” follows a linear chronology, shadowing its hero from his village childhood to old age. Idris Elba plays him throughout the decades with verve, confidence and occasional dashes of ironic humor. He is not a physical match for Mandela, powerfully built where the real man was lithe. He’s good at the inflection and cadence of that quietly majestic voice, though. When he speaks you sense the machinery of a sharp mind weighing and measuring every utterance.
Elba is best in the years before Mandela became a familiar face. As a young lawyer, he’s a forceful, eloquent spokesman for legal and political rights for native South Africans. He’s also a man with an eye for the ladies. The young Mandela is no cardboard saint but fully flesh and blood, moved to violent counterattacks against the Afrikaner power structure when peaceful avenues were exhausted. “Mandela” is on sure footing here, finding a sound balance of intimate and epic moments.
While the film has bruising sequences of bloody white repression and black retaliation, its strongest passages are Mandela’s prison years. Here we see his dignity, intelligence and superhuman patience wear away the hostility of his guards, winning their grudging acceptance and then their respect. Toward the end of his confinement, the jailers treat him more as a friend than a convict.
If any politician could guide South Africa from its grim history of apartheid toward a shaky multiculturalism, this was the man.
Screenwriter William Nicholson (“Gladiator”), adapting Mandela’s autobiography, avoids historical revisionism but does tidy up some unappealing aspects of the story. The longtime political prisoner was slow to criticize Cuba’s Castro, Libya’s Gadhafi and Zimbabwe’s Mugabe for mistreating their own dissidents.
His reluctance to denounce his then-wife Winnie (played here by Naomie Harris), who condoned appalling violence during Mandela’s prison years, is presented as a matter of restraint and personal loyalty. While the film builds a strong case for Mandela’s moral heroism, it doesn’t hoist a halo above his head.
Everyone with an opinion on Mandela’s legacy will weigh in on aspects of his character that they feel the film overstresses or slights. Condensing a life forged by extremes of experience, the movie encompasses as many tones and styles as there were facets in its hero’s ever-evolving character. Perhaps that’s as much as we can ask.