There have been two Nelson Mandela-themed movies this year. First came the well-intentioned misfire Winnie Mandela, starring Jennifer Hudson, who was clearly out of her depth. And now there’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, which is hitting global screens just as the world is coming to terms with Mandela’s recent death at age 95.
The good news is that Long Walk to Freedom is far superior to Winnie Mandela. Its central character is portrayed by an actor — a powerful Idris Elba — who’s up to the challenge. And it’s certainly closer to what Nelson Mandela’s legacy deserves.
Elba may not look anything like the South African leader, but his sheer presence makes you believe he is channeling him.
Still, Long Walk to Freedom falls frustratingly short as a cinematic experience, trying to cram too much of Mandela’s colorful life into too little time, even with more than two hours on screen.
In fact, the first half of the film feels like flipping through a history book before a final exam. There’s Mandela’s first marriage, law practice and his increasing politicization, but it’s all touched upon so briefly that it’s more of a tease than an illuminating backstory. The movie doesn’t find its rhythm until Mandela is arrested and begins what would turn out to be his 27-year prison sentence. Things slow down, and we begin to feel the weight of the man’s influence when the film focuses on the political maneuverings involved in South Africa’s transition to majority rule.
It might have been wiser for director Justin Chadwick ( The First Grader, The Other Boleyn Girl) to either choose the early years or later years but not try to put the definitive biography on screen. Still, there are enough striking performances and many visually impressive moments — such as when Mandela and a crowd of anti-apartheid protestors storm the whites-only entrance of a Johannesburg train station — to make Long Walk to Freedom worthwhile.
Naomie Harris ( Skyfall) brings an intensity to her role as Winnie that makes for a good match with Elba, especially as their marriage collapses and she becomes increasingly radical and less interested in nonviolent opposition.
But, wisely, the movie doesn’t back away from his group’s own flirtations with violence and his refusal to take violence off the table as part of a deal to guarantee his release. After all, Mandela helped establish Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed faction of his political party, the African National Congress.
For those who only know the warm and forgiving Mandela of popular imagination, this may come as a surprise. He was locked in a battle that could have devolved into full-scale civil war, and it was ultimately those tender negotiations with President De Klerk (Gys de Villiers) — the most fascinating part of the film — that helped defuse what could have been a terrible situation.
Working from a script by William Nicholson ( Les Misérables) that’s based on Mandela’s autobiography, Chadwick comes up with a film that doesn’t quite canonize Mandela in the way the 2009 movie Invictus — about Mandela’s support for the mostly white South African rugby team — did. This Mandela feels less like a god and more like a human being, and that’s a good thing.
Maybe the next film about Mandela will get it completely right.