The movie Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom feels like a long slog indeed. Public interest in the film, based on the South African leader’s autobiography, is bound to be high in the wake of his death earlier this month. Unfortunately, this reverent and old-fashioned biopic is a prime example of the kind of inspirational movie that is, itself, uninspired.
What English director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) and screenwriter William Nicholson offer is a well-intended and honest, if distended (two-and-a-half hours), bullet-point summary of Mandela’s career, full of detail but short on insight.
Because the script never really digs deeply enough to be a psychological drama, we watch his journey from revolutionary to statesman with no real understanding of how he achieved his late-life wisdom beyond the fact that, you know, he lived through a lot.
The boldest choice the filmmakers have made is in casting the imposing British actor Idris Elba (Pacific Rim, Prometheus) in the title role. The tall, muscular Elba, though not notably similar to Mandela in appearance, helps remind us that Mandela was not always the gentle grandpa we know from the past 20 years.
After the opening prologue shows the Xhosa rituals (tribal chants, golden sunsets) that welcome the teenaged Mandela into manhood, we see him in his early, worldly years. It’s the 1940s and Mandela is a cocky young Johannesburg lawyer, club denizen and frequent womanizer, in spite of having a wife and children at home.
The call to greatness comes early: Beginning in 1948, when the government imposed race laws known as apartheid, he turns to activism, dumping his religious wife and children and taking up with a beautiful social worker, Winnie (Skyfall’s Naomie Harris). Years of meetings and speeches and protests fly by, until the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, where police killed 69 protesters. Mandela, now a strategist, turns militant, planting bombs in a campaign of sabotage.
In 1963 he is sentenced, along with the core membership of the African National Congress, to a life sentence in prison. This becomes the movie’s second act – during Mandela’s 27-year incarceration, mostly working on a stone quarry on Robben Island, he develops strategic savvy and works with his fellow ANC inmates as a kind of shadow government-in-waiting.
As drama, the most promising part of the film focuses on Mandela’s tensions with his wife, Winnie, who goes her own ideological way, from dedicated political ally to a fatigue-wearing militant more interested in retaliation than post-apartheid reconciliation.
But the script’s hopscotch approach leaves little opportunity to feel the emotional turmoil between the headlines. A moving scene between the aging Mandela and his teenaged daughter (Lindiwe Matshikiza) is the best demonstration of his personal sacrifice.
Long Walk to Freedom proves more effective as it moves closer to the present, dramatizing Mandela’s even-tempered, hard-nosed negotiations with white government leaders on the terms of his release, leading to the end of South Africa’s white rule. Even hidden under clumsy prosthetics (a white wig and cheek padding), Elba does a fine job here in the later scenes of evoking the calm conviction of Mandela, a man so used to deprivation that nothing tempted him to betray his ideals.