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.