Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a conventional biopic made anything but conventional by the magnitude of its subject's life and accomplishments, and by Idris Elba's imposing performance in the title role.
Nelson Mandela, who died three weeks ago and whose autobiography served as the basis for the film, spent 27 years in prison for his efforts to break South Africa's apartheid rule, before being released and winning election as the country's first black president.
From a childhood in a Thembu village to law school in Johannesburg to a position in the leadership of the African National Congress, an activist organization dedicated to ending the minority government and its repressive agendas, Mandela proved himself a man of vision and purpose.
Written by William Nicholson and directed by Justin Chadwick (whose 2010 film, The First Grader, told the true story of an 84-year-old Kenyan who enrolled in elementary school when the government passed a universal education act), Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom hits the milestones along the path. A charismatic orator, Mandela was recruited by ANC freedom fighters and participated in the historic 1943 Johannesburg bus boycott; in the wake of police shootings of unarmed blacks - including women and children - he trained with paramilitary groups and led resistance missions.
The film provides a glimpse of Mandela's increasingly unhappy first marriage, and his courtship and marriage to a social worker, Winnie Madikizela (Naomie Harris - fierce and fiery). Politicized by her involvement with Mandela and his ANC brethren, Winnie became a key figure in the anti-apartheid movement; and, as the years of Mandela's imprisonment ticked away, less a figure in his life.
The visit to the island prison by his 16-year-old daughter - only now allowed to see her father for the first time since infancy - is powerful. It's a reminder of the cruel isolation, the stolen moments, he experienced. Elba plays Mandela from 23 to 76, and his portrayal has grace and gravitas.
If subtleties have been lost, true-life characters conflated, facts reconfigured or forgotten, the most important aspect of the film remains: Mandela's towering sense of purpose and resolve, his ability to forgive, to forge consensus, to lead. Elba has no difficulty making us believe that this man was capable of all that - and more.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
*** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Justin Chadwick. With Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, and Terry Pheto. Distributed by the Weinstein Co.
Running time: 2 hours, 19 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, nudity, profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: Opens Wednesday at area theaters.