How do you fit the life of a man who lived to be 95-years old into a two and a half hour movie? Here’s the obvious problem with the latest (and unlikely to be last) film depiction of Nelson Mandela. In order to cover every essential aspect of his life, a six-hour HBO mini-series with the time to develop every new step, discovery and pivotal encounter in his life might do him justice.
In light of Mandela’s recent passing, the filmmakers here cover a lot of ground but don’t go far enough and abbreviate too many characters and subplots. But while it cuts corners narratively, it displays the same exhilarating energy, passionate filmmaking and ability to keep audiences riveted as Spike Lee’s masterpiece, Malcolm X.
Mandela’s life is briskly portrayed as a highlight reel of a remarkable obstacles and a grueling victory over enormous opposition. We see him as a young boy, then a trial lawyer and a womanizing activist. This isn’t a glamorized portrayal of its subject; Idris Elba’s magnetic depiction is sympathetic, but the man isn’t portrayed brandishing a halo.
We see his evolution of an attorney turned anti-apartheid activist, which leads to his decades long imprisonment. This portion is among the film’s strongest, as we’re no longer jumping from one event to another and are able to linger in one of the defining events in the man’s life. His mental and physical survival while serving a life sentence provide some of the film’s most harrowing moments, such as Mandela’s first entering his cell and being sadly aware of the long days to come.
Elba can play anyone, as his work in film and television display a startling versatility. In playing one of the most famous figures of the 20th century, he’s mostly up to the task. Elba bears only a passing resemblance to the man, though his accent and vocal cadences are perfect. Morgan Freeman’s facial similarity (his soft features are closer to Mandela than Elba’s) and effortless charisma make his Invictus turn the standard.
Still, Elba captures the inner fire of a man whose journey to correct the wrongs of apartheid never ended. The ordeal Mandela struggles through is enormous and Elba connects to the spirit of a man whose perseverance and determination for justice and peace never wavered. Naomi Harris (the Skyfall scene stealer who plays the new Moneypenny) captures Winnie Mandela’s righteous anger and zeal for emotionally charged activism. The contrast of the Mandela’s approach to fighting apartheid is interesting and Harris and Elba have many great scenes together.
The camera rarely stops moving. Rather than a dry docu-drama, we get a grand-scale, sweeping epic that hones in on the intimate, jolting moments as much as the large scale reenactments. It’s paced so briskly, never dull and always so entertaining, it really could have afforded to be longer.
Sometimes the abbreviations are frustrating. We see Africans celebrating with Mandela in 1994. Why? The movie never tells us, though those who know their history will recall it was the year Mandela was elected President of South Africa. Knowledge of the subject beforehand is essential to filling in some of the gaps in the screenplay. But while flawed and unlikely to be the definitive take on Mandela’s life, it’s been made with an urgency and bravado fitting and celebratory of the subject matter.
The end credits play out with U2’s “Ordinary Love” over a parade of photographs from Mandela’s life. Mandela’s death struck me as such a surprise, even for a man at 95-years of age. Considering all the things he overcame in his life, his inevitable death still struck me as a surprise.
Score: **** (1-5 Star Scale)