By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood September 9, 2013 at 11:34AM
Critics thus far generally agree that Idris Elba turns in a fine performance as the eponymous lead of Justin Chadwick's biopic "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," which recently premiered at TIFF. They also generally agree that the film itself isn't up to Idris' performance, that it's overly "reverential" tone and "sledgehammer" subtlety bedevil it from the get-go. As the Guardian notes, it's an "Encarta Encyclopedia article laid out on an epic scale." More below.
The film hits theaters November 29, via the Weinstein Company. Check out the trailer here.
It takes a commanding actor to fill the shoes of the man most instrumental in ending institutionalized oppression in South Africa, and the charismatic Idris Elba proves equal to the task in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Directed by Justin Chadwick with perhaps an inhibiting sense of cultural responsibility but also with the emotional sweep that such a momentous life story demands, this is sumptuously produced epic-scale bio-drama stamped from the classic mold.
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.
[Elba’s] take on the icon is respectful and deft. Winnie is played by Naomie Harris, who charges the character with a revolutionary zeal.
The film rushes through Mandela's life and times. Johannesburg, Sharpeville, Robben Island, freedom. It's a tick-box check-list of things you should know about the man. An Encarta Encyclopedia article laid out on an epic scale. Time is contracted (we spend 30 minutes in prison; Mandela got 27 years), the greatest hits are rolled out, but there's nothing that embraces the idea that life makes a man and informs his politics. The day-to-day is lost in the bluster.
Elba’s face has been transformed to make the actor look more like Mandela. He is terrific as womaniser and young radical, delivering a rousing speech at a cinema and also in the run-up to the 1994 election calling for peace on television.
Chadwick gambles that the central love story will carry the picture – a young couple driven apart by political necessity. But just like the real relationship, it ultimately fails to work.
Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom, directed by Justin Chadwick (Bleak House on TV, The Other Boleyn Girl) and scripted by William Nicholson, barely attempts drama, instead just stringing together key moments from the life of Mandela, without much continuity other than chronology, the whole project having been crippled by reverence. It is like an educational video, the message driven home by lots of scenes in golden sunlight, fuzzily filmed in slow motion, to a soundtrack of soaring African music.
As Mandela, Idris Elba (The Wire, Luther) makes a valiant attempt at impersonating the great man but it feels an imposture throughout, especially as he ages, conveyed by whitening hair and a stiffer gait.
To be sure, there’s very little that’s terribly wrong with Chadwick’s film. Mandela wouldn’t be confused with scintillating cinema, but it tells its story in a thoughtful manner, presenting Mandela’s life in a straightforward way without trying to inject any sort of artificial character arc onto the story. But that hands-off approach also means that the film doesn’t have much of a point of view about its narrative, serving more as a rote recitation of memorable moments from Mandela’s life rather than as an incisive perspective on the events or their political and social repercussions.