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‘Mandela’ falls a bit short

  • Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela, center in the film, "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom." (AP Photo/The Weinstein Company, Keith Bernstein)

Due to a sad accident of history, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” arrives as not just a biography of the late leader but a memorial. Nelson Mandela’s recent death has burdened this conventional, high-minded, rather pedestrian movie with an unsought mantle of significance.

The film’s scope is vast, from Mandela’s youth as a rhetorical and literal bomb-thrower, through his 27 years of imprisonment, his release, and his election as president of the nation that demonized and jailed him.

As with most film biographies, the movie’s reach exceeds its grasp. It doesn’t capture Mandela’s political and cultural influence in full. What single film could do justice to such a dramatic and controversial life?

“Mandela” follows a linear chronology, shadowing its hero from his village childhood to old age. Idris Elba plays him throughout the decades with verve, confidence, and occasional dashes of ironic humor. He is not a physical match for Mandela, powerfully built where the real man was lithe. He’s good at the inflection and cadence of that quietly majestic voice, though. When he speaks you sense the machinery of a sharp mind weighing and measuring every utterance.

Elba is best in the years before Mandela became a familiar face. As a young lawyer, he’s a forceful, eloquent spokesman for legal and political rights for native South Africans. He’s also a man with an eye for the ladies. The young Mandela is no cardboard saint but fully flesh and blood, moved to violent counterattacks against the Afrikaner power structure when peaceful avenues were exhausted. “Mandela” is on sure footing here, finding a sound balance of intimate and epic moments.

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