Genre: Biography, Drama
Directed by: Justin Chadwick
Starring: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Terry Pheto, Robert Hobbs
When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Such is the myth that has grown around the man that it’s almost impossible to think in anything other than slightly other-worldly terms. His recent passing brings to a close one of the most influential, well-known and great lives of the past century. By happenstance, Justin Chadwick’s biopic turns up in time to provide a greatest hits summary of his life. He has produced a stirring if flawed film reverently basking in the long shadow cast by Mandela.
As you would expect, Mandela is the heart of the film. Rarely off screen, his life is traced right from early legal beginnings through his start with the ANC, the decision to switch to armed struggle and the long years of solitude that precipitated the fall of the venal apartheid system that had riven South Africa in two.
Idris Elba is tasked with stepping into Mandela’s oversized shoes, a role that he does justice for the most part. His sheer physical presence helps to sustain a performance that rarely sees his character out of the frame. The only other person to get a look in, and it’s only a look, is Naomie Harris’ Winnie Mandela. The make-up as he ages is sometimes a little rough around the edges, but Elba’s commanding charm is strong enough to see him through.
Perhaps inevitably, William Nicholson’s screenplay struggles to disassociate the legend from the man. Mandela carries a magical aura right from the start, a potency that remains constant. He’s the all-conquering lover, fighter, speaker, statesman and hero right from the off. The script reaches back through time to impose the latter day icon feted by so many onto the young man. As such, his rise is skipped over, the film taking for granted that he’s to become the man whose death led to such an outpouring of international grief.
This gives rise to mixed messages. Mandela and his ANC comrades all highlight that no one person standing alone can bring about the change needed. He even lectures fired up young activists that it’s together that they can make a difference. Yet at the same time, with such a heavy focus on one man, it often feels like he’s doing much of it singlehandedly. His lecture is followed far too quickly by a scene in which he goes against a unanimous vote by his friends and joins secret talks with the Government on the grounds that he must do what is right. The words may suggest togetherness is the only way, but the action demonstrates something different.
The relentless focus on Mandela also leads to a significant drop in momentum as the story moves forward. His early years in the first act motor along, an enjoyable snapshot of the founding days of the ANC and his rise to prominence. He moves around the country giving inspiring speeches and directing proceedings, a whirlwind of action that keeps him separate from his family for long periods. But his confinement on Robben Island, with his actions significantly restricted, sees a gradual halt. The failure to build a convincing world around him means no one is left to pick up the slack when Mandela is removed as a primary actor.
Sure, there’s Winnie, but Harris has little to do other than smile or look vengeful. If she’s lucky, she gets to do both at the same time. Her initial romance with Nelson is nothing more than a short montage and she’s then kept off screen for the most part, only thrust back in for pivotal scenes that don’t really function given her relative anonymity elsewhere. We see brief glimpses of her suffering in solitary confinement, the catalyst for the hate driven woman that emerges for the occasional violent rallying call later on. But such a complex, divisive person deserves better. What should be a vital sub-plot is really just a placeholder allowing the film to tread water until the hero returns.
Luckily, when his return is one of the inspirational stories of modern times, there is still enough left in the tank to finish strongly. His actions and motivations go mostly unexplored, but his ultimate victory, the end of apartheid, is an emotional and uplifting moment as we see the sacrifices he’s made prove not to be in vain. If the film itself is not quite the epitaph he deserves, the climax comes pretty close.
For 2 and half hours, Mandela fawns over its eponymous hero, but if you’re going to fawn over anyone it might as well be him. It’s just a shame that no effort has been made to take a deeper look at events. All it really tells us is that he was an influential and beloved figure, hardly much of an insight. His legend makes for a wonderful story. What’s missing is the man.