Movie Reviews

Charismatic stars make ‘Mandela’ memorable | 3 stars

Updated: 2013-12-25T23:31:56Z


Special to The Star

Like many biographical films, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” plays like a “greatest hits” package of its subject’s life events.

Starting with the tribal ritual that ushers Nelson Mandela into manhood and ending with his late-in-life emergence as a world leader, director Justin Chadwick (“The Other Boleyn Girl,” “The First Grader”) condenses a lot of material into 2 hours and 20 minutes. Some of the film is shallow and rushed, but when it stops to take a breath, it offers a context for the news stories that have come in the wake of Mandela’s recent death.

Idris Elba is appropriately charismatic in the lead role, especially in early scenes showing his rise within the African National Congress. Chadwick and screenwriter William Nicholson (“Les Miserables”) don’t offer much explanation for Mandela’s political evolution — he starts out as a hotshot lawyer, then rather abruptly realizes that working within the apartheid system is ineffective.

The film is equally cursory when dealing with Mandela’s personal life, skimming over a failed first marriage and introducing his famous second wife, Winnie (Naomie Harris), so quickly, it seems as if they meet and marry in just a few days.

Once “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” arrives in the early 1960s, Chadwick finally taps the brakes, if only out of necessity. When the ANC begins a violent fight against the South African government, Mandela and several associates are sentenced to life imprisonment on the brutal Robben Island.

There’s no way to rush through events when your protagonist is marking time in a cell, so the film takes a more thoughtful and deliberate approach from this point. It matches Mandela’s own transformation, as he becomes less confrontational yet, ironically, more powerful.

Chadwick cuts away from the prison to show the dissolution of South Africa during this time, as the conflict between whites and blacks — and among blacks themselves — tips the country toward civil war. Winnie takes on a much greater role, as she is continually abused by the authorities and tries to become a leader in her own right.

The roots of the Mandelas’ eventual separation are explored sensitively, illustrating how her immersion in the hate-filled outside world sends Winnie on a radically different ideological path from the one her husband is traveling.

Elba and Harris both give fierce, energetic performances, garnering audience sympathy without watering down the human foibles of the icons they’re playing. Elba has to act underneath some bad makeup as Mandela ages, and Harris bears little resemblance to Winnie, but they still command every scene, even when they’re off screen (which isn’t often).

“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” would have been a brilliant miniseries. As a feature film, it simply can’t have the depth that such an important story deserves. It is, however, a worthy and inspiring addition to the long list of Mandela tributes.

Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and disturbing images, sexual content and brief strong language.

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