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It takes a commanding actor to fill the shoes of the man most instrumental in ending institutionalized oppression in South Africa, and the charismatic Idris Elba proves equal to the task in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Directed by Justin Chadwick with perhaps an inhibiting sense of cultural responsibility but also with the emotional sweep that such a momentous life story demands, this is sumptuously produced epic-scale bio-drama stamped from the classic mold.
The success of The Help and Lee Daniels’ The Butler showed that audiences will turn out for films about race. The challenge facing the Weinstein Company with this late-November release will be to test whether that holds for a history lesson set on the other side of the world.
Like those aforementioned hits, Mandela is straightforward storytelling of a type that’s somewhat out of fashion, but ultimately no less stirring for it.
The opening is uneven, reaching bluntly for instant inspirational notes and then larding the early scenes with a busy selection of music choices in an effortful bid to escape the constraints of the didactic biopic. But the two-and-a-half-hour film finds its voice and improves steadily, anchored by the conviction of the lead performance and terrific support from Naomie Harris (Skyfall) as Winnie Mandela.
Adapted by William Nicholson from Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, which supplies the subtitle, the film unfolds in exhaustive detail, providing context if not a great deal of complexity. It traces Nelson’s Xhosa roots in the rural hills; his politicization as a young lawyer; his rise to prominence in the initially nonviolent African National Congress; his increasing militancy in the face of shocking acts of brutality against black South Africans; and his arrest and conviction with a handful of close ANC colleagues on charges of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government.
The personal focus behind this trajectory is on Nelson’s sustaining love for his wife, played with grace and powerful anger by Harris. Winnie steps into his life soon after the exit of his first wife (Terry Pheto), driven away by his womanizing. Undeterred by his track record, she informs him that she’s not like his other girls, and we believe her. Beneath the sweetness of this poised young beauty there’s an unyielding sense of purpose. This keeps her staunchly behind her husband’s radical activism even at great personal cost, but also hints at the ideological divide to come during the long years of Nelson’s incarceration.
The controversial aspects of Winnie Mandela’s life are not glossed over, and Harris gives convincing evidence of her irreversible hardening as she continues to endorse violence long after her more moderate husband has publicly condemned its use in the struggle.
The film gains in momentum as it marches through Nelson’s 27 years in prison toward his eventual release, going on to lead the negotiations that brought down the curtain on apartheid. The inhumanity of that white supremacist regime still has a gut-wrenching impact, making it now seem inconceivable that it remained in place until 1994. The continuing echoes of that recent history help muffle the drama’s lack of formal invention.
While Elba’s gifts have been tapped in his television work on The Wire and Luther, few if any films have showcased the British actor’s range quite so expansively as Mandela. From an early scene with him in training as an amateur boxer he shows a rangy physicality, an absolute ease in his body that enhances his magnetism. That dynamic presence feeds the warmth as well as the authority and dignity of the man. He’s also uncannily like the real Mandela in his voice and accent work.
As Nelson’s face grows heavier and his hair turns gray during his years of confinement, he becomes more introspective, acquiring a stillness that contrasts to the man in his youth. But the insightful mind shows no loss of agility, as demonstrated in his shrewd dealings with the government committee assigned to broker his release. Elba conveys the changes and the consistencies of a half-century with subtle economy.
While secondary characters are given limited scope compared to the two leads, the cast is solid down the line, with some lovely moments from Lindiwe Matshikiza as Nelson’s teenage daughter.
From the period production and costume design to the stately visuals and panoramic shots of magnificent landscapes, this is a classy production that will inspire many audiences with its deeply respectful portrait of one of the global political stage’s indisputably great leaders.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentation)
Opens: Friday, Nov. 29 (Weinstein Co.)
Cast: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Jamie Bartlett, Lindiwe Matshikiza, Terry Pheto, Deon Lotz
Production company: Videovision Entertainment
Director: Justin Chadwick
Screenwriter: William Nicholson, based on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom”
Producers: Anant Singh, David M. Thompson
Executive producers: Cameron McCracken, Francois Ivernel, Geoffrey Qhena, Basil Ford, Sudhir Pragjee, Sanjeev Singh, Philisiwe Mthethwa, Hlengiwe Makhathini
Director of photography: Lol Crawley
Production designer: Johnny Breedt
Music: Alex Heffes
Editor: Rick Russell
Costume designers: Diana Cilliers, Ruy Filipe
Sales: Pathe International
Rated PG-13, 146 minutes.
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