September 08, 2013 10:19pm PT by Scott Feinberg
Toronto: Idris Elba and Naomie Harris on Track for Oscar Noms for 'Mandela' (Analysis)
TORONTO -- On Sunday afternoon, I caught the second-ever screening of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, following its world premiere here at the Toronto Film Festival on Saturday night. Just a week ago, on Sept. 1, the 95-year-old Nelson Mandela, the great hero of South Africa, was released from the hospital after an 87-day stay. And Mandela was greeted with a prolonged standing ovation Saturday night and very warm applause Sunday. The Weinstein Co. will release it in select theaters starting Nov. 29.
Other films have previously highlighted aspects of Mandela's life and legacy -- most notably Clint Eastwood's Invictus (2009). But none has attempted to cover as much or done so as effectively as this one, which was directed by British filmmaker Justin Chadwick (who three years ago premiered another film about Africa, The First Grader, at TIFF).
Mandela has been in development more than 25 years. Anant Singh, its South African producer, first wrote to Mandela back when the African National Congress leader was still serving a life sentence in prison for "sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government" as a result of his resistance efforts against the increasingly harsh oppression of blacks by the all-white government. In 1990, after 27 years behind bars, Mandela was released, and in 1994 he was elected the first black president of South Africa. Singh procured the film rights to his life story, which was first told in the 1994 autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, and Bill Nicholson adapted it for the screen. Before Sunday's screening, Singh said that he had recently shown "Madiba" clips and stills from the film which were met with the amazed response, "Is that me?!"
The person who so reminded Mandela of himself -- and the reason why the film is what it is -- is Idris Elba, who gives a typically masterful performance, portraying Mandela from his relative youth through his historic election. Elba, a Brit of African descent, is, I would submit, as great an actor as there is working today, right up there with the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Best known for his work in TV on The Wire and Luther, he brings with him to every part an imposing physique and an indescribable presence and sense of wisdom, which happens to be just what the current role requires. He also nails the great man's voice and accent, and, thanks to prosthetics, hair and makeup, looks eerily like him (particularly as an old man). It all combines to make him one of the strongest contenders for this year's best actor Oscar.
Of course, just as America has Bill and Hillary -- a sort of royal couple in a democratic nation -- South Africa has Nelson and Winnie, making the portrayal of Mandela's longtime wife/now ex-wife a not-insignificant part of the equation for this film. Chadwick cast Naomie Harris, who was his leading lady in The First Grader, but who is better known to most as the main Bond girl in last year's Skyfall. And she delivered for him. Harris conveys the beauty and passion that attracted Nelson to Winnie in their youth -- and the not-unjustified rage and militant worldview that got her into some trouble while he was imprisoned, contributing to their separation not long after he was freed. I expect that Harris will strongly contend for a best supporting actress Oscar nomination. (Coincidentally, Winnie Mandela is also portrayed in the indie film Winnie Mandela, starring Jennifer Hudson. That film opened this weekend after a long gestation period -- I caught it at TIFF two years ago -- and South Africa's former first lady has distanced herself from it.)
The best thing about Mandela is that it does not depict Mandela as a saint, which would be not only inaccurate but frankly boring. Instead, it shows that, in his youth, he was a philandering husband, an absent father and, yes, a man who resorted to violence -- but only as a final means of resisting the despicable treatment of blacks by whites under Apartheid. The worst thing about Mandela is that it doesn't fully capture the horrors of what it was like for Mandela to be imprisoned for decades of his life, much of it on isolated Robben Island, during which he was kept from touching his wife, seeing his young kids until they turned 16 or even writing more than two letters home each year. No film ever could, because it is unimaginable. What makes Mandela such a remarkable and cherished individual -- maybe the last great universal hero -- is that, despite that, he reemerged into society not filled with hatred and seeking revenge, but rather selflessly seeking truth, reconciliation and a better future for his country. For me, the son of a South African who has visited the country often, it's nice to know that more people all over the world will discover Mandela's story through this film, and, hopefully, learn something from it.