Harvey Weinstein’s latest Oscar-bait, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” certainly has the ingredients of a best picture: an epic life story rooted in oppression, a strong lead actor and a beloved character for him to play.
But “Mandela’s” walk — based on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography of the same name — may feel a little too long for audiences.
Idris Elba (best known to American audiences as Stringer Bell from “The Wire”), gives it his all as Mandela starting from when he was a young lawyer in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1942 up until he was elected as the first post-apartheid South African president in 1994. I would be surprised if he doesn’t come out of this thing with at least a Golden Globe nomination.
“Mandela” tries to avoid the typical biopic pitfalls by moving through his adult life evenly and without skipping large chunks of time. To its credit, the movie does not leave out some of Mandela’s flawed characteristics, like his womanizing or the fact that he was in favor of violent revolution before he was against it.
But because “Mandela” tries not to focus on one aspect of his life for too long and then jump ahead 10 years, the audience never really gets a sense of why Mandela chose to be the martyr that he was. We know that Mandela was against apartheid because apartheid was bad, but we’re never made to really feel what he felt. That may be because apartheid, civil rights and racism are just too difficult to explain in one film, or it may have been due to lack of trying. I haven’t read Mandela’s autobiography, but I highly doubt that you finish it without an understanding of his motives.
There are some truly brutal scenes in “Mandela” — some fictionalized, some created actual footage from the era — that hit me more than most of the dialogue, written by William Nicholson (“Les Miserables,” “Gladiator”). But the script in general is boilerplate biopic. When it’s truly engaging, it is when Elba is speaking Mandela’s own words.
Naomie Harris (“Skyfall”) also gives a strong — and especially angry — performance as Winnie Mandela, the leader’s embattled wife. She really shines towards the end of the film when she and her husband have drifted apart — romantically and politically — through his decades-long jail term.
The makeup team deserves a round of applause for aging Elba from his mid-twenties until his mid-seventies without making him look like a caricature.
Mandela’s life is, of course, an inspiring and epic story. And while “Mandela” is both intense, engaging and at times emotional, you won’t need to pack your tissues for this broad biopic. Then again, it may be enough to pull Oscar-voters’ heartstrings, especially if Harvey Weinstein is the one doing the pulling.
“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” opens nationwide Nov. 29.