"You alone are small," a Xhosa elder tells Nelson Mandela and his contemporaries during a rite of passage marking the transition from adolescence to manhood. "Together, your people are big." A wise sentiment, and perhaps a cautionary one: "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" is a lesson in the cinematic pitfalls of portraying a figure who's larger than life.
Based on the anti-apartheid activist and South African leader's autobiography, adapted for the screen by William Nicholson and directed by Justin Chadwick ("The Other Boleyn Girl"), "Mandela" reverently traces its subject's evolution from a clever, dashing lawyer in World War II-era Johannesburg to a global icon of the fight for racial equality. But therein lies the rub: except in the steadiest of hands, icons rarely make for compelling drama, always living in the abstract. "What is it you personally want?" a journalist asks Mandela (Idris Elba) early in his political career. "I want freedom," he replies.
Of course, Mandela did want freedom -- he sacrificed two marriages, relationships with his young children, and the greater part of his adult life for it. To say that "Mandela" comes across as a dry, mostly airless retelling of the impossible choices he faced between the personal and the political is not to deny the historical significance of those choices, but rather to suggest that if you're planning to see "Mandela" solely for its educational content you're better off reading the book.
The result is that the film relies for narrative momentum on a handful of events -- the massacre of 69 protestors at Sharpeville in 1960, Mandela's daring speech inside a Pretoria courthouse in 1963 -- already more or less well known, as though the investigation of our enigmatic protagonist's inner life had been abandoned in development. To put it in polite terms, Chadwick is a deft arranger of set pieces, a director who at least knows well enough to get out of the way of the story.
Unfortunately, this stolidly traditional approach seeps into Elba's performance. He, too, seems most at home depicting the Mandela whose political will and unspeakable courage inspired a revolution in South African life. Faced with material that renders the man placid and unequivocal, a memorial statue already in the making, Elba loses the damaged, slightly dangerous command that defines his best performances, as Stringer Bell ("The Wire") and Detective Chief Inspector John Luther ("Luther"). It's possible, in the wake of Nicole Kidman's Virginia Woolf ("The Hours," 2002) or Daniel Day-Lewis' Abraham Lincoln ("Lincoln," 2012), that I'm merely inured to the magic of the physical transformation. Yet, what elevates these performances, what makes them memorable to me, is not the uncanny precision of the imitation. It's the discovery, in the icon's well-worn image, of some previously unseen internal machinery. In "Mandela" you may lose sight of Elba, but the unknown quotient of the man he plays never comes into view.
For proof of this point you need only turn your eye to Naomie Harris' Winnie Mandela, hardened by hatred for apartheid and its white beneficiaries, one of the Furies unleashed. Harris, in a revelatory turn, is scarcely recognizable as the coolly flirtatious Moneypenny of "Skyfall": instead, raising her fist before the massive crowd outside Mandela's trial, or later, sporting combat fatigues and gold earrings while pressing for battle, she's the film's most vibrant force, its sole unpredictable element. The thin, proud smile that passes over her face as she watches her daughter speak to a raucous stadium crowd is the kind of telling, intimate detail that reverence alone cannot exact from history's lived experience.
Indeed, it's a useful illustration of the lesson "Mandela" seems to have forgotten, or perhaps ignored, in telling the story of a man who was a big as his people. For those who witnessed it first-hand, whether iconic or invisible, the drama of the past lay in a simple, if often painful, truth: the outcome was still unwritten.
"Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and recently screened at the New Orleans Film Festival. The film begins its theatrical run November 29.