Director: Justin Chadwick. Videovision/Distant Horizon/Origin Pictures/Pathe/Weinstein (12A)
Producer: Anant Singh.
Writer: William Nicholson.
Camera: Lol Crawley.
Music: Alex Heffes.
Sets: Johnny Breedt.
Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Zolani Mkiva, Simon Mgowaza, Thapelo Mokoena, Jamie Bartlett, Deon Lotz, Terry Pheto, Carl Buekes, Andre Jacobs.
Based on former South African President Nelson Mandela’s autobiography of the same name, this biopic chronicles the anti-apartheid campaigner’s life from his early days in a traditional African community in what was then part of Cape Province, to his emergence as an impassioned human rights activist and his imprisonment following this. Only during his later years, does he finally see black and white segregation abolished.
Much has been written recently about how black, British actors and directors are increasingly looking abroad to find work, due to the paucity of good, non-stereotypical roles and projects here (think about the glut of council estate ‘gangsta’ thrillers that creep onto UK screens). The Guardian’s Tom Seymour is one such journalist who has looked at this. And many of our best talent are now finding their feet squarely on American soil.
Idris Elba, who has starred in British TV productions such Luther but is more famous for his American work in dramas such as The Wire and films like Prometheus (2012) is one such actor who has decamped abroad with much success. Here, in a film blessed with the most fortuitous of release dates (Mandela’s death was announced during the film’s world premiere in London last year) he grabs what might be the role he will be remembered for (ironically, this is a co-British/South African production).
It is an Oscar worthy performance and Elba cannot fail to come out of this anything other than wholly magisterial as an almost saintly Mandela. He nails Mandela’s very unique accent whilst never once looking anything like the man he is playing. Only once, when berating his first wife, does he wobble (and you can almost see his tongue working over time to get the glottal African pronunciation out).
This probably explains why Nelson in this film is muscular and throbbingly, naughtily sexual – we are under no illusions about his sex life. Mandela was obviously a good and frequent lay, if the smiles on his female co-stars faces are anything to go by. We are told at the start of the film that his given name as a child can be translated as ‘trouble-maker’, obvious considering the raucous glint in Elba’s eyes throughout.
The women in his life do manage to get something of a look in too – Harris is a mighty, warrior like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, his second and most famous (some would say controversial) wife. She comes to life in direct counterpoint to the patient and martyr-like suffering of her on-screen husband, a firebrand activist who would not be cowed by the abuse meted out by the South African regime of the day.
Pheto, as his first wife Evelyn, is not on screen long enough but manages to convey the poignancy of a politican’s wife sidelined to historical ignominy with the kids as her husband’s public profile sky-rockets.
What is a crying shame about Chadwick’s high profile movie is it never comes across as anything more than a slickly produced film version of a Wikipedia page. Indeed, we can learn more about what motivated the man internally and politically from that erstwhile, default information portal (the link is here for anyone who fancies a read through). Criticisms of the man, during and after his anti-apartheid fight, are kept largely at bay, presenting a hagiographic, one-sided depiction of one of this and the last century’s most famous men. Of course, it is difficult for a film-maker to be too critical or even questioning when the subject and his close relatives are still active during the production.
The film is not with0ut merit – aside from the solid acting all round, the scenes that concentrate on the violence that was everyday life in the Soweto district and the start of what could have been civil war in South Africa are staged with an ‘up in your grill’ ferocity. There is some playful visual comparison too – from the teenage Mandela, freely running naked and painted white during a tribal ceremony to the imprisoned man clothed as a convict doing hard time, coated in the chalky dust of a quarry. But too often Chadwick and writer Nicholson hurtle us from one event to another, despite the luxurious running time (2 hours and 26 minutes) that would allow them the opportunity to slow down and let us catch our breath as they look into the bigger moments.
As if this isn’t enough, any celebratory atmosphere created by the film is completely obliterated by having Bono singing on the closing credits, when a joyous, traditional African song from Mandela’s home tribe would have been much more appropriate (and welcome).