Winnie: Toronto Review

32 FEA Toronto Winnie H
Courtesy of TIFF

Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard star in Darrell Roodt's film.

Solid performances are undercut by lack of storytelling integrity in this plodding biopic.

They tried to break her spirit but they couldn’t crush her sense of style. That might almost be a tagline for South African director Darrell James Roodt’s Winnie, an illustrated Wikipedia entry on the controversial figure who crusaded to end apartheid alongside her husband Nelson Mandela and was once known as “the mother of the nation.” Headlining Jennifer Hudson in a veritable Vogue spread of period and ethno-chic looks, this one-dimensional biopic reduces important 20th century political figures to cardboard cutouts.

Hudson proved her acting chops in her Oscar-winning debut in Dreamgirls, yet casting her as Winnie Mandela seemed about as convincing an idea as Kim Kardashian playing Benazir Bhutto. However, her measured performance is one of the strengths here, even if her role is more an emblem for militant tenacity than a fleshed-out character. The same goes for Terrence Howard as Mandela, given a playful introduction before the actor’s sly charisma is damped down into earnest nobility.

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Working from a clunky screenplay he co-wrote with Andre Pieterse, adapted from Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrob’s biography, Roodt begins milking unearned emotions the minute the movie starts. A stick-fighter who can hold her own against the boys as well as recite Shakespeare, pre-teen Winnie (Unathi Kapela) is instantly established as a proto-feminist, insisting that women shouldn’t be restricted to cooking, cleaning and making babies. Cut to the pensive child contemplating the panoramic view from her Transkei Mountains birthplace, while Laurent Eyquem’s syrupy score froths up into the first of many heart-tugging surges.

Hudson steps into the role (and some prim, pastel ‘50s outfits) when Winnie goes to college in Johannesburg. Refusing an opportunity to work in America in favor of staying in South Africa to help her people, she quickly catches the eye of Nelson, whose equality campaigning with the African National Congress is ruffling feathers in the white governing class. Marriage and children quickly follow, with a sinister goon squad monitoring the couple’s every move.

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Violent government retaliation to peaceful ANC protests attracts unflattering attention in international press, dictating that Mandela must be stopped. Arrested on charges of sabotage and treason, he stands trial in 1963, with Winnie causing a stir in the courtroom in her regal traditional African attire. Asked by the judge to tone it down, she responds that while the state can limit her freedom, it cannot dictate her wardrobe. She’s Diana Vreeland with a political platform.

With Nelson sentenced to life imprisonment, Winnie continues to galvanize support, her refusal to be intimidated also landing her in jail. The many months of solitary confinement test her sanity. She starts talking to ants in her cell, which the film turns into a ham-handed metaphor for an oppressed people by having an enraged prison guard squash the insects under her boots.

No one is disputing that South Africa under apartheid was a nation of shameful abuses and injustice. But with minor exceptions, the white characters here are so overwrought in their villainy they become almost buffoonish, led by the nefarious Major DeVries (Elias Koteas).

Following her release from prison and a period of exile away from the political frontlines, Winnie becomes linked to an extremist fringe, frowned upon by the ANC. She also gains a personal security detail in the Mandela United Football Club, alleged to be a band of thugs. This, and her rumored infidelity, creates distance in her relationship with Nelson, now moved from high-security confinement into a less harsh Cape Town prison as the government begins to negotiate his release.

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The script doesn’t shy away from the kidnap and murder of a 13-year-old MUFC member believed to be a police informant, which led to Winnie being held accountable for human rights violations. But Roodt fudges perspective on the scandals and legal problems that tarnished her record of heroic dedication. The screenplay also is inconsistent in showing Nelson’s response. It strongly suggests his horror at the barbaric methods condoned by his wife, yet depicts their divorce following his release as a political necessity to which he reluctantly agreed.

There are rich dramatic possibilities in the conflicted choices here, but in striving to inflate the tragic love story, Roodt’s film whitewashes too many moral issues, sacrificing nuance and complexity.

Hudson, in particular, deserves better. Her one-on-one scenes with Howard have pathos, but as Winnie’s actions grow more questionable, the film can’t decide whether she’s a martyr or a pariah, and the performance doesn’t answer that question. Without insightful dialogue, Hudson’s expressions of uncompromising defiance, wounded dignity or booze-soaked bitterness veer into cliché. And both Hudson and Howard are done no favors by ropey latex work as their characters age.

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Some imposing locations aside, the most distinguishing visual aspect is the excessive period detail in Pierre Vienings’ costumes; the 1950s and ‘60s scenes, in particular, are awash in fussy design statements, with more hats than a Philip Treacy showroom. Even later on, it’s hard to feel much as Winnie steps through the charred rubble of her burnt-out house when you’re busy taking in the shimmering aquamarine caftan she’s somehow rescued.

The Toronto premiere carried a disclaimer indicating that sound and image quality are not final, and end credits were not yet in place. (A turgid Diane Warren power ballad sung by Hudson played over a black screen.) But technical finessing is not going to change much for a film far too antiquated in its approach to epic storytelling, which makes it less likely to work on big screens than as a prestige women’s television event.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production companies: Ma-Afrika Films, Equinoxe Films
Cast: Jennifer Hudson, Terrence Howard, Elias Koteas, Wendy Crewson, Aubrey Poo, Talitha Ndima, Unathi Kapela
Director: Darrell James Roodt
Screenwriters: Andre Pieterse, Darrell James Roodt, based on the book, “Winnie Mandela: A Life,” by Anne Marie du Preez Bezdrob
Producers: Andre Pieterse, Michael Mosca
Executive producers: Ellen Wander, Geoffrey Qhena, Gert Gouws, Philisiwe Buthelezi, Hlengiwe Makhatini
Director of photography: Mario Janelle
Production designer: Emelia Weavind
Music: Laurent Eyquem
Costume designer: Pierre Vienings
Editor: Sylvain Lebel
Sales: CAA/Film Bridge International
No rating, 102 minutes