There have been films about periods in Nelson Mandela’s life before (Invictus, Goodbye Bafana), but this is the first to attempt the full story, the roots of which precede Mandela’s notorious 27-year imprisonment by decades. It’s an admirable aim – but there’s much missing from this overview of Mandela’s life, which travels in an unilluminating straight line from his circumcision at 16 to his election as president of South Africa age 75. It feels like a biblical gospel; hushed and reverential, always gearing up for the next big speech or moment. As a beginner’s guide to Mandela, it’s respectable; as cinema, it feels shackled by the greatness of its subject. Most curiously, it’s terrified of the very thing that defined him: politics.
William Nicholson’s script is adapted from Mandela’s own 1994 book, Long Walk to Freedom, which was rich in detail over 630 pages. In turn Mandela, as directed by Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl), tears through the decades at lightning speed and leans on sweeping cameras, over-insistent music and a rag-bag of visual styles. It’s self-consciously epic and bathed in the soft glow of an endless magic hour. Idris Elba gives a bold performance as Mandela, but you can see history on his shoulders; as an older man, you can see the makeup too.
One of the few areas of Mandela’s life where the film dares to stick its neck out is in its portrayal of the separation of Nelson and Winnie (Naomie Harris) in the early 1990s (a topic on which Mandela himself was coy). The script reflects wider splits across South Africa in their disintegrating relationship, so turning the political into the personal in striking, concise fashion. Elsewhere, such inspiring interpretations are rare.