A great life story deserves a great movie, and this isn’t
it. That doesn’t mean the film lacks value, or merit, or that the stars don’t succeed
in bringing Nelson and Winnie Mandela to life. But Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is missing a fire of its own. It’s
the kind of well-made, well-intentioned film one might assign to students who
don’t know anything about the Mandelas. That’s the best back-handed compliment
I can pay this adequate but uninspired effort.
The always-imposing Idris Elba does a fine job interpreting the (now) larger-than-life figure of Nelson Mandela and following his path from bystander to participant to leader of his people in South Africa. William Nicholson’s screenplay never fully explains how Mandela acquired his great wisdom along the way, or his philosophy of non-retaliation against his oppressors. We’re just supposed to accept it as a given.
Naomie Harris portrays the growing involvement and militancy of Winnie Mandela in her husband’s (and country’s) struggle, but her character is secondary in this telling of the tale and never fully fleshed out.
Director Justin Chadwick and his team reach back in time effectively enough, and Elba successfully embodies Mandela at many stages of his life. A reminder of this man’s struggle, endurance, and grace is never redundant or out of place, but it would be nice to see a film that transcends the conventions of a connect-the-dots biopic.