Hard moral decisions weigh heavily. And in "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," Justin Chadwick’s stately screen biography of the late Nelson Mandela, British actor Idris Elba conveys the agony as well as the nobility of Mandela’s quest for South African racial equality. Much of that pain is suppressed rage at the cruelty and injustice of apartheid. As Mandela looks beyond the fury of the moment and calculates the cost of urging violence, you sense his frustration at having to make the only reasonable choice and taking the high road.
Elba doesn’t look much like Mandela, who died Dec. 5. He is considerably beefier. But he has the same hyper-alert gaze that acknowledges the world’s horrors while looking above and beyond toward a humanitarian ideal. He also captures Mandela’s distinctive accent with uncanny accuracy. Elba is completely convincing as a natural leader with a ferocious drive. He makes you feel the almost unimaginable personal price Mandela paid by spending 27 years in prison, separated from his family. His lowest moment comes when he is forbidden to leave the island to bury his eldest son.
‘MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM’
The performances of Elba and of Naomie Harris — who plays his wife, Winnie, a volatile firebrand whose simmering anger can erupt at any moment — give a crucial human dimension to this streamlined, panoramic, would-be epic. The Mandelas are the only significant roles in a movie in which everyone else is a bit player, including white South African leaders.
"Long Walk to Freedom" sustains the measured, inspirational tone of a grand, historical pageant. Events that are worth films of their own are compressed into a sweeping, generalized history. Gripping, dynamically choreographed scenes of violence are harrowing but short, as the story hurtles forward at breakneck speed.
If the lack of specifics is frustrating, how could it be otherwise? Mandela’s biography and South African history are so rich and inextricably linked that it is impossible to reduce it to a nearly 21⁄2-hour movie without it feeling rushed and incomplete.
Still, to their credit, director Chadwick ("The Other Boleyn Girl") and the screenwriter, William Nicholson, who adapted the script from Mandela’s autobiography, have created a movie with the flow and grandeur of a traditional Hollywood biopic.
The film heats up once Mandela is released from prison. The compelling scenes of the Mandelas, no longer youthful, bitterly disagreeing over policy and separating, are so powerfully acted that every accusatory glance exchanged by the couple conveys accumulated years of struggle and sacrifice. Intransigently radical, Winnie Mandela endorsed retaliation against black South Africans who collaborated with the apartheid regime. One scene shows a young man about to be burned alive. During this final third, the film comes the closest to shedding its lofty airs.
Elba’s towering performance lends "Long Walk to Freedom" a Shakespearean breadth. His Mandela is an intensely emotional man whose body quakes in moments of sorrow. The carefully chosen words in his eloquent declarations of principle, spoken with gravity and deliberation, are deeply stirring.
Review by Stephen Holden, New York Times