Nelson Mandelas remarkable life story, based on his 1994 memoir. Young Mandela (Elba) is politicised as a lawyer, joins the ANC fight against South Africas white oppressors, meets feisty social worker Winnie (Harris), and the rest is history...
In recorded history, few lives equal Nelson Mandela’s — from herd boy to the world’s most famous political prisoner to President of South Africa — for reversals of fortune, drama and global impact. So the big expectations for this film prove hard to meet given it is a largely conventional biopic. But with Mandela’s passing it hits exactly the right note, celebrating the passionate commitment and dignity of the man.
Screenwriter William Nicholson (Gladiator, Les Mis) is at pains to chart Mandela’s evolving stances, director Justin Chadwick dramatising affectingly the cruelties that hardened the activist and set Madiba (his clan name) on a more radical path. They also have a stab at reflecting the controversial figure he became, although his first marriage’s failure due to neglect and adultery is given more weight than his espousal of guerrilla warfare. It’s no hagiography, but understandably so sympathetic you wouldn’t call it “warts and all”.
Shouldering the role of Mandela requires presence, and Idris Elba certainly has that. The actor acquits himself very well, studly in the womanising years, savvy in the fight to end apartheid, stoic while jailed, statesmanlike in the triumphant outcome that glued one billion people to the TV. Naomie Harris as second wife Winnie is a firecracker on her progress from sexy soulmate to damaging ideological opponent. Mandela’s own journey in prison — from proponent of armed struggle to messenger of peace and reconciliation — is harder to grasp while amazing things were happening outside without him. Nevertheless, the lesson the man learned as a boy, “You alone are small; your people are mighty,” is insistently brought home, and inspirationally. The final shot, and his achievement in getting there, cannot fail to be all the more affecting as the world mourns his death.
Its vivid, substantial and works hard to be worthy, but as it ticks off the milestones of a monumental life it flickers more often than it really catches fire.