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‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’: A full life, expertly portrayed by Idris Elba


Nelson Mandela Idris Elba

Winnie Mandela Naomie Harris

The Weinstein Co. presents a film directed by Justin Chadwick and written by William Nicholson, based on Mandela’s autobiography. Running time: 141 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some intense sequences of violence and disturbing images, sexual content and brief strong language). Opens Wednesday at local theaters.

Updated: April 14, 2014 4:42PM

Such was the length and breadth of the late Nelson Mandela’s amazing life journey that Danny Glover played him in the TV movie “Mandela” way back in 1987 — and Morgan Freeman played him in Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” in 2009.

The list of other talented actors who have portrayed Mandela includes Sidney Poitier, Terrence Howard, Dennis Haysbert, Clarke Peters, David Harewood — and now Idris Elba, who in “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” turns in maybe the most complete and compelling interpretation of Mandela the man and Mandela the symbol.

One hesitates to say this about a movie because it makes it sound like a history assignment, but if you’ve got young people in the house and they didn’t quite understand or appreciate the massive worldwide reaction to Mandela’s death at 95 earlier this month, this would be a great place to start.

Like the actors mentioned above, Elba doesn’t really resemble Mandela, nor does he try to do an imitation, though he does an admirable job of transforming his British inflections into something approximating Mandela’s unique Xhosa cadence. Elba captures the fire and the passion of Mandela the young activist, the resilience of Mandela the political prisoner, and the wisdom and astonishing capacity of forgiveness of Mandela the elder statesman.

Working from Mandela’s autobiography, director Justin Chadwick and screenwriter William Nicholson give us a reverent, sometimes predictably traditional epic that takes us through the main chapters of Mandela’s life: his early adult years as a lawyer in Johannesburg; his failed first marriage; the courtship and marriage to Winnie (Naomie Harris, in a fiery and passionate performance); his first involvement in the anti-apartheid movement; his obscenely lengthy prison sentence; etc., etc.

Nearly any one of those chapters could be a movie unto itself. Even with a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” fast-forwards through certain passages in Mandela’s life. (If ever a modern historical figure merited a multi-part mini-series, this is the man.)

Despite the fine work from Harris as Winnie, the arc of the marriage and its demise is given short shrift here, with Winnie coming across as unsympathetic as she turns her romantic affections elsewhere and embraces the more violent, radical faction of the anti-apartheid movement. It’s left to the saintly Mandela to explain her actions as he notes they were together for only a few short years and then apart for 27.

Director Chadwick does a fine job of interspersing sometimes stunning scenes of violence in the streets, inspirational rallies and the more personal elements of Mandela’s life. It’s not the images of Mandela breaking rocks in a prison courtyard that drive home the sacrifices he made; it’s when he’s told he can’t leave to bury his son, and it’s when he’s finally allowed a visit from his teenage daughter, who was just learning to talk when he was hauled away to prison.

“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” is at its most involving in the final passages, after Mandela’s release. Even with his outside linebacker’s physique, the 41-year-old Elba (with the help of some effective makeup work) manages to convey the physical and emotional toll that nearly three decades in prison can do to a man — and the resolve that kept him going.

Mandela was in his 70s when he was released, yet there was still an entire life and legacy to be lived: the split from Winnie; peace negotiations with the government; the 1994 election; a third marriage at the age of 80. You could START a feature-length film at any of these junctures and have more than enough material to work with. “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” was almost guaranteed to fall short of greatness from the moment the decision was made to cover such an overwhelming length of time and so many key moments in one of the longest and most astonishing stories of the last century.

This was a man with fierce drive and a forgiving heart. Elba gets that as well as any of the other fine actors who have portrayed Mandela through the years.


Twitter: @richardroeper

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