Having taken nearly as long to reach the screen as its subject spent imprisoned by South Africa’s brutal apartheid government, producer Anant Singh’s film of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography finally arrives bearing the slightly musty odor of a 1980s Richard Attenborough superproduction: stolidly reverential, shackled to the most dire conventions of the mythmaking biopic, and very much a white man’s view of the “dark” continent. Making “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” seem positively avant-garde by comparison, director Justin Chadwick (“The Other Boleyn Girl”) and screenwriter William Nicholson’s CliffsNotes version of Mandela’s nearly 700-page memoir never opts for a light touch when a sledgehammer will do, slathered in golden sunsets, inspirational platitudes and John Barry-esque strings that will doubtless make a certain contingent of awards voters sit up and beg for more. But for all its failings, there is one thing about “Long Walk to Freedom” that can’t be denied: Idris Elba gives a towering performance, a Mandela for the ages.
Positioned by its U.S. distrib, the Weinstein Co., as an Oscar big-leaguer, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” seems less of a sure bet commercially, where it will open in the immediate wake of two other decades-spanning chronicles of black historical figures (“The Butler” and “12 Years a Slave”), to say nothing of the myriad other Mandela-themed films that have surfaced on screens big and small in recent years (affording everyone from Sidney Poitier to Terrence Howard a shot at the role).
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At the time of Clint Eastwood’s superior “Invictus,” which smartly focused on a small episode from Mandela’s life that felt representative of the whole, it was widely noted that Eastwood’s star, Morgan Freeman (the actor Mandela himself said should play him), had spent years working with Singh and a raft of screenwriters on a version of “Long Walk to Freedom,” only to be defeated by the challenge of condensing such a long and complicated life (both personally and politically) into a single film. And though the movie has finally been made, the unwieldy nature of the narrative has hardly been tamed, especially in the pic’s third act, when Nicholson’s script haphazardly cuts among its hero’s impending release from prison, his estranged wife’s descent into radical politics, and a nation teetering on the brink of civil war.
But you know what you’re in for pretty early on in Chadwick’s film, which opens with slow-motion images of children in a Xhosa village running through a wheat field at dusk, sun flares kissing the camera’s lens and throaty tribal singing on the soundtrack. We are about to witness a Xhosa rite of passage in which teenage boys — one of them Mandela — become men, and from the way Chadwick and cinematographer Lol Crawley shoot it, we might just as well be witnessing the birth of Christ. Not even five minutes into the movie, and Mandela is already a veritable martyr.
As in Attenborough’s “Gandhi” (upon which “Long Walk” appears to have been closely modeled), almost everything that follows are great and/or tragic moments from the life of the great and tragic man: births, deaths, marriages, separations, fiery speeches and unjust imprisonments. Nicholson (himself a former Attenborough collaborator) tries to cram in so much history that the movie scarcely has time for the everyday: Judging from the evidence here, you’d think Mandela never so much as read the newspaper over breakfast.
The opening half-hour (which Toronto press had to see twice, after the film’s first press screening was halted for an unexplained technical problem) skips at a particularly whiplash-inducing pace through Mandela’s formative years as a Johannesburg lawyer in the early 1940s, his growing outrage over his country’s racial politics, induction into the nascent African National Congress, fractious first marriage to fellow ANC activist Evelyn Mase (Terry Pheto) and second to the social worker Winnie Madikizela (Naomie Harris).
What holds the movie together here and elsewhere is Elba, who doesn’t look as much like the real Mandela as other actors who’ve played the role (principally Freeman, and Danny Glover in the 1987 HBO movie “Mandela”), but who does share his looming 6-foot frame and proves an uncanny mimic of his vocal inflections, speech patterns and accent. What’s more, Elba catches the spirit of Mandela in the way no other actor quite has, especially as the twentysomething version of the character, already brimming with activist brio, but also a ladies man and all-around lover of life, moving through Joburg’s nightclubs with the cocksure swagger of a South African Tony Manero. If, in stylistic terms, “Long Walk to Freedom” always seems to be consecrating a saint, Elba never loses sight of “Madiba” the man.
Unsurprisingly, most of the pic’s second act is devoted to Mandela’s 27-year prison term (of a life sentence) on charges of sabotage and anti-government conspiracy — most of that time spent on the former leper colony of Robben Island, off the Cape Town coast, in a bare cell measuring 50 square feet. (Proper beds were not even introduced until 1974, more than a decade into Mandela’s stay.) Though “Long Walk to Freedom” was shot in the real location, it’s emblematic of Chadwick’s overall approach that he can’t help making it look like a Hollywood set, with wet-down floors and overly dramatic lighting. These are also the most familiar scenes in the movie — part and parcel of every version of the Mandela story — and yet Elba once more gives them a charge, as the young firebrand now known as Prisoner 46664 evolves into perhaps the shrewdest elder statesman of the 20th century.
The always watchable Harris is nearly Elba’s match as the complicated and controversial Mrs. Mandela (and an enormous improvement over Jennifer Hudson in the 2011 Toronto premiere, “Winnie”), though she isn’t served nearly as well by a script that keeps her offscreen for long stretches, then demands hairpin changes in personality, from loving helpmeet to dejected, unfaithful spouse, and bellicose militant at odds with her husband’s politics of peace.
At every juncture, the movie feels directed within an inch of its life. When Winnie spends her own 18-month stint in a Pretoria prison, we receive it as a horror-movie barrage of canted angles and amped-up reverb. Still, there are moments from Mandela’s story that carry such brute-force power no amount of aesthetic overkill can squash them: the prisoner’s first glimpse of his daughter Zindzi (Lindiwe Matshikiza) in more than a decade; his first embrace of his wife in more than two; and the final steps of that long walk, in February 1990, when Mandela emerged from a small warder’s house on the grounds of Victor Verser Prison, free at last.
After the pic’s lengthy gestation, Singh seems to have spared little expense in bringing it to life, even when less might have been more. Period sets and costumes are uniformly fine, changing convincingly with each successive era, while the crowd scenes buzz with real (rather than CG) extras. Despite promotional billing as “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” the onscreen title reads simply “Mandela.”