Matt Pais, @mattpais
RedEye movie critic
December 24, 2013
*1/2 (out of four)
Is the subtitle in "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" really necessary? No one (I hope) is going to see the name "Mandela" in a movie title and expect to see, "Mandela: Five-Time Bowling Champion."
Unfortunately, those who do endure director Justin Chadwick's ("The Other Boleyn Girl") biopic won't learn a great deal about late South African leader Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba). The script from Oscar-nominated writer William Nicholson ("Gladiator") constantly makes foolish, years-long leaps, going through bullet points of major events without showing the community and impact of the racist government. (This lack of attention to detail derailed "Lee Daniels' The Butler" as well.) Mandela makes a lot of speeches, and we get a brief sex scene between him and his second wife, Winnie (Naomie Harris of "Skyfall"), but there's almost nothing from his childhood or, say, what happens to his first set of children. Did he just forget about them?
Even more so than the failed "Winnie Mandela" with Terrence Howard and Jennifer Hudson, "Mandela" remains at a distance from any controversial examination of decades of bigotry and unrest in South Africa. The film ignores any effects that Mandela's imprisonment had on his and Winnie's kids (especially when she spent a bit of time in prison herself, including a year and a half in solitary confinement) and minimizes Winnie's connection to the violent practice of "necklacing."
A movie chronicling the importance of a man as influential as Mandela needs to connect the man to his people. Spanning about 50 years, "Mandela" gives no indication as to when and how his work and principles spread among the community or the motivations behind white political leaders' decisions late in the film. Mandela's choice to say goodbye to many women and marry Winnie can be chalked up only to her interest in taking walks in a field.
The performances aren't the problem; it's that a few inspirational moments can't compensate for so little information about Mandela's inner circle or a mere glimpse at the streets of South Africa. No one should complain about sitting through a two and a half hour drama about a man who spent so long in prison fighting apartheid. Still, "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" is a long, unrewarding experience that gets off to a bad start -- as if the filmmakers couldn't decide how to begin the film among three options, so they decided to use all of them -- and never recovers.
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