The problem with making a film about the life of Nelson Mandela is that unless you focus on a brief period, there’s just too much material to deal with. Movies like Lincoln and Hitchcock worked so well because they focused on a narrow period of the subject’s life. When you do what director Justin Chadwick does here, try to cover a large part of the life of someone who was in fact, larger than life, it is usually an overreach.
That’s not to say this is an awful or even bad film. It is just less than it could have been. Based on the amazing autobiography by Nelson Mandela with the same title, it tells the story of how a man who was dedicated to nonviolence made the difficult choice to use violence. How this man was kept in prison for 27 years, often under horrible conditions, emerged without seeking revenge on his jailers. How this man became the first black president of South Africa, a nation where apartheid had been the guiding principle of the white minority for decades following World War II.
Idris Elba is outstanding as Nelson Mandela. Taking on the role of a real-life person who had already been portrayed by the likes of Sidney Poitier and Morgan Freeman is no easy task. The lack of any physical verisimilitude did not help either. Elba overcame these factors and you can see the effort and preparation he undertook in order to be as excellent as he was on the screen.
There is honesty in the portrayal of Mandela as a human being. We learn that like the rest of us, he is imperfect. His philandering is front and center early in the film, along with some of what made him the man he became. A quick visit to his tribal beginnings, his boxing, his time as an attorney trying to protect the victims of apartheid from further inequities and more. But it’s a wandering beginning and it doesn’t crystalize until he joins the ANC.
The development of the relationship of Mandela and his wife Winnie, and what took them in different directions during his 27 years in captivity is the best slice of this movie. Naomie Harris does a fine job of showing us the journey of a woman from went from supportive wife to activist who was willing to do anything to bring about the end of apartheid. With her husband becoming more and more an advocate of peace during and subsequent to her release, and her growing endorsement (and possible complicity in) extreme violence, the end of their marriage is a fait accompli.
Again, the flaws are not with the actors, who are excellent, or with any of the elements of the film itself. It is the attempt to do too much with more material than can be properly presented in just one feature film. Even extending the running time to nearly 2.5 hours is just not enough to capture the entire life of Nelson Mandela.