The coincidence of Nelson Mandela’s death earlier this month just as a film based on his life was rolling out to theaters — his daughters were at the London premiere when the former South African president passed away on Dec. 5 — seems less bizarre when you see the movie itself. “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” is cinema as civic statuary, a classic Great Man bio-pic weighed down by solemnity, duty, and an aversion to artistic risk. It’s the Official Story of a man who was for nearly 30 years his country’s most unofficial person, and, aside from some youthful randiness early in the film, it wouldn’t be out of place at a state funeral. The movie is extremely well produced, it features two excellent lead performances, and it is dull.
But how do you make a living narrative from the life of a man who ended his days as a saint? Maybe it would help to start with filmmakers outside the commercial entertainment factory system: Both screenwriter William Nicholson (“Gladiator,” “Les Miserables”) and director Justin Chadwick (“The Other Boleyn Girl”) approach their source — Mandela’s 1994 autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom” — with the reverence of sinners coming to church on bended knee. By far the liveliest scenes in the movie come in the first hour, when the young Mandela (Idris Elba) carves out a niche as a canny Johannesburg lawyer, exploiting the cracks in apartheid’s system of justice while cutting a swath through the city’s eligible young ladies. The film crackles with burnished colors, a young man’s confidence, and the upbeat rhythms of pennywhistle jive.
Those scenes, too, take pains to remind us how thoroughly white rule crushed the spirits of a people unlucky enough to be born in their own country. When the police pick a drunken friend of Mandela’s off the street and murder him in a holding cell, it’s the casualness — the snuffing of a life as business as usual — that leaves you breathless.
Elba (“Pacific Rim,” TV’s “The Wire” and “Luther”) looks not a whit like the actual Mandela, but his presence is so imposing, so charismatic even in stillness, that the movie and everyone in it willingly follows along. He’s matched stride for occasional stride by Naomie Harris as Winnie Mandela, who shared her husband’s cause until she split off on a more radical and violent path. Every drama needs development, and “Mandela” has it in Winnie’s gathering righteousness and fury. Harris gets the brimstone in the woman and the ruinous ego, too. Unfortunately, she’s only the movie’s subplot.
The second half of “Long Walk to Freedom” deals with Mandela’s 27 years in prison, 18 of them on the remote rock known as Robben Island. The film has discreetly dipped its toe in the African National Congress’s turn to violence after the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, but it’s more comfortable depicting its subject’s return to peaceful resistance and his growing international stature during the long years of incarceration. It would take a more inventive director, probably an artist, to turn three decades of immobility into galvanizing storytelling, and while these scenes are compelling in the manner of a Classics Illustrated adaptation, the film’s energy slowly seeps out.
It perks back up during the 1980s sequences, in which the aging Mandela — still officially a prisoner — partakes in high-level government discussions about ending apartheid and with the majesty of a born leader commandeers the meetings from white politicians. That’s its own movie, too, but “Long Walk to Freedom” still has a lot of walking to do — out the prison doors and into the early days of the post-apartheid era, with Mandela ever more forceful in his insistence on reconciliation and forgiveness.
Despite Elba’s rubbery old-age make-up, these scenes are moving in the way that great speeches can be moving; they touch you with big ideas and greater ideals, if not the force of individual personality. By that point, Mandela has become bigger than anything an actor can play, and the only thing left for the filmmakers to do is break out the U2 song over the end credits.
“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” is sincere, honorable, and perfect for showing to the kids. It’s one long teachable moment. And maybe next time someone will figure out how to truly bring Nelson Mandela to life.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.