MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM (PG13) / 147 minutes / Opened on Thursday
The story: It opens with the young Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba) as a lawyer trying to put right the many injustices, big and small, of South Africa's racialist apartheid system. He is recruited into the anti-apartheid political group, the African National Congress (ANC). The film follows his private and political life, including the 27 years he spends in prison, up to the time he is elected president of South Africa in 1994. Based on his 1995 autobiography Long Walk To Freedom.
As the makers of the film make clear, Mandela was no pacifist, though he might have appeared to many to be one during his ascendancy to world prominence.
The man whom much of the world saw as a kindly older uncle figure participated in acts of sabotage which today would have branded him a terrorist, and there are scenes showing him wreaking havoc in the name of freedom.
In his personal life, he was negligent of his first wife and had a troubled relationship with second spouse Winnie.
That aside, this is far from a warts-and-all portrait.
Such is the weakness of biopics sanctioned by its subject and based on autobiographies, and for political figures, it is a weakness compounded by the fact that statesmen have a lot more to lose with frankness, compared with, say, artists.
This is a work that seeks to do two things: Create a narrative that draws a bright line that connects his upbringing to his character, continuing on to his politics, ending at the shape of a free South Africa; and secondly, fleshing out details that would bring a media icon to life.
The film succeeds more at the first goal than the second.
British director Justin Chadwick (The First Grader, 2010; The Other Boleyn Girl, 2008) recreates the mood of a restless nation confidently and convincingly.
The circumstances of Mandela's birth, his induction into politics and the shaping of his beliefs are handled with honesty.
There are no great road to Damascus conversions here, as there were few in Mandela's life. His ideas formed gradually.
We see, for example, that while imprisoned, he decides that there will be no retribution for the crimes of apartheid following free elections.
Using Winnie Mandela's (Naomie Harris) growing radicalism as a foil to illustrate his own pacifist beliefs stays on the right side of obvious, to Chadwick's credit.
Despite the film's sprawling 147-minute running time, Mandela never quite coalesces into a real person.
British actor Elba acquits himself well and his vocal inflections are often uncannily like Mandela's. But there is too large an array of characters around him, ranging from ANC party confederates to members of his large blended family. His private and political selves never quite seem to blend into a coherent whole.
This might all be attributed to Mandela's complex and contradictory personality, in which case, this project might have been better served as a television miniseries.
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