After 16 years gestation, 50 drafts and a change of leading man (Denzel Washington’s fingerprints were on it for a while), ‘Mandela The Movie’ has made its long walk to the screen. And yes, it’s worth the wait.
Instead of a history lesson trying to telescope all of Mandela’s legendary, lengthy life, this is a handsome and confident adaptation of the great man’s autobiography, using sharp snapshots to create an emotional through-line.
Director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) focuses on Mandela’s long and complex relationship with his second wife Winnie (a firecracker Naomie Harris) to guide us through South Africa’s troubles.
Powering the 50-year span using subtle genre shifts, the movie really starts to motor when Idris Elba’s womanising, apolitical young lawyer swaps his family (no Diana sugar-coating here) for radical politics and Winnie-wooing.
Headlong into the ANC bombings of the 1950s, Mandela’s outlaw life takes on the taut rhythms of a thriller, culminating in the grandstanding ‘One man, one vote’ drama of his 1963 treason trial.
Giving a dynamic, physical performance rather than a Lincoln-like imitation (though he’s got the voice down pat), Elba astonishes as the younger Mandela. Only later, beneath a layer of talc and latex wrinkles, does his considerable screen presence lack the gravitas for Mandela the prison philosopher and elder statesman.
Enlivening the 27 long years in captivity, Harris crackles as a revenge-fuelled Winnie: raging through solitary prison stints, peeing on her interrogators, and later egging on her violent retinue.
Chadwick keeps the film thrumming with political upheaval, weaving together archive footage of Sharpeville and Soweto riots with vivid recreations of bloody township battles.
Yet with Mandela’s release, an elegiac tone creeps into the awestruck recreation of his one-man dismantling of apartheid, and it slows appreciably as he becomes the full-blown Father of the Nation.
Granted, there’s real pathos in William Nicholson’s script – moving from epic gains to intimate loss – and it far outstrips Luc Besson’s earnest Aung San Suu Kyi love-in, The Lady.
But by the end, the film’s magisterial tone and sun-drenched, red-dusted good looks remind you overwhelmingly of that other glossy, feel-good epic of nation-saving: Gandhi. For the movies, saints can be harder work than sinners.
Ambitious in its span and powerful in its recreation of tumultuous times, this is a skilful dramatisation and a worthy celebration. Elba impresses mightily as the man, but just misses out on capturing the legend.