The story of one of the greatest leaders in the world: Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba). A chronicle of his life journey from his childhood in a rural village through to his inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

2.5
Idris Elba stands above average biopic.

Biopics of famous figures are like death and taxes: they appear to be inevitable, and come at a price. Often built as monuments to great ideals and heroism, the worst of them stink of worship and romance. All that’s left is a feeling of loss. They end up objects of mourning where magnificent opportunities are buried.

Some, like Gandhi (1982), are epic pageants, the Parade Float version of history. In it, director Richard Attenborough seemed convinced that he did not need to add anything of note to the official record of his subject. But he prosecuted a great case in his own favour as a brilliant organiser of movement and extras and he was rewarded with a troop of Oscars, including best picture and best director, largely because the Academy can’t seem to get enough of this kind of thing.

If this writer seems impatient with the biopic then that’s a good guess. For the record, I prefer the sensibility of something like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or The Aviator (2004). And that’s because both Lean and Scorsese granted a lavish dignity to their insufferable heroes while seething at the way their protagonists belittled the minions of the own little fiefdoms and the world at large. Their self-appointed isolation had a claim on a very real and fragile humanity.

A lot of critics have already scorned Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, a UK/South African production directed with great energy and a quivering solemnity by Brit actor turned helmer Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl, 2008). It is, too, a Weinstein release, which ought to reassure all of its essential wholesomeness.

Based on Mandela’s 1995 autobiography, it took producer Anant Singh an eternity to get it made, and now arriving at the moment of the death of its subject it’s been branded as yet another tribute, a thing made under the dead hand of a Gandhi, where perhaps some might have preferred something with more warts (or should that be scars?).

I’m not sure it’s all that bland, but nor is it wrestling with the queasy mess of a real life aiming to deliver a searching and inescapably inconclusive psychological portrait a la Scorsese or Lean. Forget politics, too, which is, distinctly ironic at best, and fatally evasive at worst. Chadwick and co.’s Mandela is hated and hunted by his oppressors as a terrorist, meanwhile Mandela plots government overthrow between making stirring speeches and planting bombs. The depth and scope of the hatred directed at black Africans and its social and cultural impact is reduced to epic-movie shorthand: set-pieces of group outrage and white snarling faces. What drives the movie’s idea of political analysis is the imagery we know from Nazi pictures and modern war films about the war on terror: vicious guards, torture, tiny prison cells and here, literally, faceless government men. (They’re shot in shadowed silhouette.) The subtle complexities of how the ANC’s policies and actions and their struggle against Apartheid impacted international diplomacy outside of South Africa are coyly avoided, as are any mention of the ruling regime’s alliances with so-called progressive nations. (Allegations of the CIA’s role in Mandela’s arrest in 1962 are MIA.)

Still, there are quite a few incidental pleasures to be had here, the best of them a brilliant central performance by Idris Elba as Mandela. Fans of HBO’s The Wire already know this actor’s great depth and skill. He doesn’t look like Mandela but he sure sounds like him and, more importantly, at no point do you doubt this man as a leader and statesman. Elba’s Mandela is also the movie’s best written part (that’s a happy thought, though not a natural one) and you feel the actor soaking in its dimensions and letting them out in scene after scene. Here, Mandela is a tough, virile womaniser obsessed with work and the struggle. This may well fit the broad outline of Mandela’s own claims, but it’s also Hollywood boilerplate all the same: career vs. domesticity. What gives this writer’s war-horse a smack is Elba and Chadwick’s desire to ground it in emotional truth. Elba’s unselfconscious delight in his own sex appeal, for instance, is one of the film’s smartest moves (and great joys.) There’s a sense that Elba’s Mandela is a man of powerful impulses, where thoughtfulness is sometimes a stranger. Elba is unafraid to play the man’s guilt in the face of the loved ones and friends who he sacrificed in the struggle. The other leads are fine: Terry Pheto is very good as Evelyn, his first wife, and Naomie Harris is excellent as the angry, radicalised Winnie.

William Nicholson takes the script credit (the trades note that quite a few scribes were claimed in the development process.). His CV experience boasts intimate drama like Shadowlands, and the epic Gladiator, as well as the point where these two attitudes uneasily converge, Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007).

His narrative – which, after a brief prologue set in Mandela’s childhood, begins in the '40s and ends with Mandela’s release and the birth of the new South Africa 50 years later – has no edge, no 'story’ per se, and that leaves Chadwick with a film of no suspense and little tension. Thus, it’s a movie of episodes: Mandela’s recruitment to the ANC, Mandela going underground, Mandela as prisoner, Mandela as statesman. What keeps it alive are the nuances in the writing; Nicholson and Chadwick seem to always find something in a scene to make it breathe. I particularly liked a bit early on where Mandela interrupts a picture show mid-movie to urge punters to join a protest of civil disobedience. He leaps on stage with the projector still running to make his plea; it’s a lovely image of the nascent statesmen coming out of the shadows to stand in the limelight, seemingly unafraid of rejection, a preacher testifying to self-evident truths. In its way, it’s emblematic of the whole movie: a potent mix of uplift and corn.