THIS hugely sympathetic and authorised biopic of Nelson Mandela presupposes that world audiences will be familiar with South African history circa 1960.
In doing so it rushes through Mandela’s domestic life and marriages before arriving at the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 and presenting it as the powder keg that finally exploded Mandela’s simmering anger at minority rule and apartheid.
That moment is what transformed peaceful protest into an armed struggle. It is also the tipping point for Mandela and sees him jailed for life. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (based on Mandela’s own memoirs) focuses on the mental and physical discipline needed to survive incarceration for 27 years.
It also considers what his imprisonment did to second wife Winnie and their children. Hatred keeps her strong. Forgiveness drives him. Such a mighty subject is dependant on a mighty performance. Mandela the Movie is blessed with two: the genius casting of Idris Elba – a powerful physical presence as well as an actor capable of mastering Mandela’s vocal tones and inflexions – and Naomie Harris as Winnie.
Elba as Mandela is quiet and imposing. As this most recognisable of icons he is faced with ageing plausibly and straddling five decades as husband, father, lawyer, activist, political figurehead and, finally, architect of reconciliation and peacemaker.
Speeding through the years allows director Justin Chadwick and writer William (Shadowlands) Nicholson to present snapshots of Mandela’s various lives spent in conflict, turmoil and isolation.
In all of them it is Elba who stands tall and prevents the film from flagging.
The film’s main failing is in its depiction of Winnie Mandela. It skates over her corruption and the issue of her alleged complicity in murder and other crimes.
Yet her metamorphosis from supportive spouse to powerful politico in her own right is handled with skill and subtlety by Harris. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and viewers would be well served by their own research.
However, this is still a mighty film with a mighty performance from Idris Elba.
You would never know he was a Londoner.