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Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

By Philip Martin

This article was published December 27, 2013 at 2:15 a.m.

An intermittently engaging biopic anchored by a strong if rather one-note performance by the suddenly hot Idris Elba, Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom plays exactly like what it is - an adaptation of the beloved Mandiba’s autobiography. There’s almost a classical structure to the film, which lends it an old fashioned grandeur and a whiff of stuffiness. It’s a great maiden aunt of a movie - you might or might not love it, but you feel commanded to give it your respect.

As the young Mandela, Elba is fantastic - he’s full of vitality and fire, with a suggestion of randiness. He’s a firebrand and a genuinely dangerous person. When he becomes the older man, his body language relaxes, but the performance becomes a little buried in the familiar accoutrements of the great man. He’s simply too robust to convey the gingerness of the post-Robben Island Mandela. Elba tries, but he can’t quite cut through the makeup and the expectations. His older Mandela is more like a Saturday Night Live impression than an award-worthy performance. It’s not Elba’s fault, he’s working really hard, but it’s difficult to overcome the audience’s image of the real Mandela (who, as you probably know, died on Dec. 5).

Otherwise, the film does an admirable job of compressing Mandela’s long life into a feature-length presentation, although I left the theater wondering whether we really needed this sort of straightforward biography. Maybe we do, for one of my younger colleagues, when asked bya studio representative for his impressions of the film, remarked that he had never really understood the reasons for Mandela’s lengthy imprisonment on Robben Island and had only a few vague notions about South Africa’s apartheid system. He was surprised to learn that Mandela was not exactly a saint, but an active revolutionary who could have been reasonably considered a terrorist and a traitor by the admittedly brutal and morally bankrupt South African regime.

So the first third of the movie rather too briskly charts Mandela’s course from an ambitious and successful lawyer who bristles at the inherent racism of his society then political leader and bomb-thrower. But the evolution that occurs during his long imprisonment is difficult to convey - more than anything else, it seems that incarceration gave Mandela a chance to chill out.

But as a pocket history, Mandela will suffice, it even touches on the strained relationship between Mandela and his second wife, Winnie (Naomie Harris, who is also very good) after his release from prison. Director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) has a fondness for honeyed light and stately cadences, but the end result is rather like David Lean realizing a made-for-TV-quality script. The notes are as predictable as they are competently sounded. (While the production values are by and large state-of-the-art, it was jarring to see Mandela boxing on a rooftop in the 1940s, with a backdrop of ’60s-era skyscrapers.)

In short, it’s a worthy and beautifully illustrated lesson - the kind of movie that people who don’t know much about Nelson Mandela can crib from - but a lesson nevertheless.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom 82 Cast: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Terry Pheto, Gys de Villiers, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa Director: Justin Chadwick Rating: PG-13, for language Running time: 139 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 29 on 12/27/2013

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