By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
The tragic timing is striking, of Nelson Mandela's death and the release of a movie about his life that plays like a eulogy. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom reverently traces the late South African leader's life according to his autobiography, in a procession of cinematic bullet points detailing his causes and effects but not necessarily the man.
There were simply too many years and milestones in Mandela's life for a single movie to adequately cover, and the flaws such tributes overlook. Director Justin Chadwick dutifully and sometimes beautifully re-creates those, trying to show how a revolutionary not entirely averse to violence evolved into a living, breathing emblem of forgiveness and reconciliation. It's a valuable history lesson crammed into a creatively uninspired movie. Wiki-cinema, if you will.
Playing Mandela into his 70s — the aging makeup's credibility can't be stretched much more than that — Idris Elba offers a vigorous portrayal that earned a Golden Globe nomination. It's suitably noble, with a quiet power sustained by Elba's commanding physical presence. Equally impressive is Naomie Harris (Skyfall's Miss Moneypenny) as Winnie Mandela, Nelson's second wife and the violent radical he isn't.
An entire movie could focus solely on this fire-and-ice relationship, and in fact it has: 2011's largely unseen Winnie Mandela starring Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard. This fascinating relationship, a loyalty carried through Mandela's years of imprisonment, and then ended soon after his release, is the worst casualty of Chadwick's truncation tactics.
Beginning with Mandela's childhood and a Xhosa tribal rite of passage into manhood, William Nicholson's screenplay races through Mandela's years spent as a lawyer representing repressed blacks in disputes against whites empowered by apartheid culture. Mandela becomes radicalized by the injustices he witnesses, joining the African National Congress to urge a fully democratic South Africa. This first portion of Chadwick's movie is its finest, adding anarchic grit to Mandela's later, more acquainted image as a passive diplomat.
Act two is the drama-draining result of that fiery opposition, with Mandela jailed at Robben Island prison for 27 years. The first signs of becoming a mediating force emerge, negotiating for minor rights with administrators forming a grudging respect for their prisoner. Eventually the outside world rallies around Mandela's civil rights activism, leading to his release and act three, leading South Africa to new levels of tolerance and cooperation.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is an over-sprawled historical epic, chronological to a fault, that will make a finer addition to class curriculums than multiplex marquees.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.