The planned December release of this biopic about the universally revered South African leader could not be better timed. This nation-builder and worldwide face of the anti-apartheid movement died at the beginning of this month at the age of 95, following a prolonged illness, and was laid to rest after a 10-day mourning period that coincidentally coincided with the planned international rollout of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. To top things off, Google also announced in a year-end press release that the search engine’s No.1 trending search of 2013 was Nelson Mandela. It’s too bad, then, that Justin Chadwick’s film does not offer a more substantial portrait of the man, whose passing is a fresh wound to mourners and curious onlookers worldwide.
The film draws from Mandela’s autobiography; but 95 years is an awful lot of life to cover, even in a movie that’s 139 minutes long. Much of the story of the movement against apartheid, the African National Congress, and Mandela’s 27 years in prison is gravely condensed, as perhaps it needs to be. Worse, however, is Chadwick and screenwriter William Nicholson’s great-man approach, which blocks out the contributions and sacrifices of others in the struggle in favor of more single-minded hero worship. Opening with an idyllic tribal sequence in the sun-flared village of Mandela’s childhood (and eventual burial place), the movie moves forward in episodic, chockablock fashion. We witness Mandela as a young lawyer in Johannesburg, his failed first marriage, his growing radicalization, his love affair with his second wife Winnie Mandela – but these events exist without integration into the larger context of the political movement. The only exception is the depiction of the marriage between Nelson and Winnie – so close at first blush, but then damaged by his incarceration, and then hers, which is followed by Winnie’s militant radicalization just as Nelson urges nonviolence.
What cannot be missed, however, is the commanding performance of Idris Elba as Mandela. Although he bears little resemblance to Mandela, this chameleonic actor captures a sense of the subject through his gestures and gait. Appearing in virtually every scene of the film, Elba is captivating to watch. Those not already familiar with the history of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa may find they need to turn elsewhere to fill in the movie’s many gaps. Long Walk to Freedom venerates a man, not a movement. But as the world mourns the loss of a great humanist and visionary, this film can provide a starting place for deepening one’s knowledge. (Opens Wednesday, December 25.)