It was a sad yet fitting coincidence that the stars of this film should have been attending its London premiere when it was announced that Nelson Mandela’s long, long walk had finally come to an end.
Fitting because this long and worthy movie shows Mandela the man – warts and all – and acts as a great memorial to one of the towering figures of our lifetime.
The film starts as Mandela is a schoolboy in the idyllic Transkei setting of his youth and then follows him chronologically from young, idealistic lawyer to freedom fighter, political prisoner on Robben Island and finally as President of the country he fought so hard and valiantly to free from apartheid.
Along the way we see the tears and the struggle but also Mandela’s immense compassion, patience and understanding of the human psyche as he refuses to be broken by South Africa’s vicious and punitive regime against its own black citizens.
For British actor Idris Elba this role is a defining moment in his career – he inhabits Mandela’s skin as if born to it. It’s not so much that he looks like the man but his posture, demeanour and above all his screen presence speak of an individual who is absolutely certain of his destiny; a man who will not be swayed from his cause.
During the central section of the film he is helped enormously because he is playing opposite – and can bounce off and interact with – another great actor giving an extraordinary performance; Naomie Harris as his fiery wife Winnie Mandela. It would have been easy to make Winnie the cartoon character baddie, but the film shows the great hardships she also went through and to some extent explains why she became the hard and bitter character so at odds with Mandela’s own forgiving and compassionate persona.
It’s a grand story told on a grand scale but at 146 minutes is far too long, mainly because too much time is spent on the prison years meaning the more interesting (historically and personally for Mandela) period of his release, his negotiations with the government on regime change and his final elevation to most powerful man in his beloved country seems rather rushed and brushed over.
That said, this is a much better and more accurate historical drama than many others in the genre and deserves to be seen for those two central performances alone.