Today, we are cancelling the apartheid!
Nelson Mandela is an appropriately complicated figure for the big screen. While he’s widely admired for his peaceful, passive ideals, those who really dig under the characters surface will realize he wasn’t always willing to hug it out with his enemies. At his best he was gregarious and incredibly capable of forgiveness. At his worst he was a hotheaded activist who didn’t really think things through, women or political method. Mandela has about as many layers as a seasoned oak tree. For any director, there’s no shortage of material to get stuck into.
This is both help and a hindrance in Chadwick’s film. Based on the lengthy life story outlined in Mandela’s autobiography, Chadwick (director of fellow biopics’ The Other Boleyn Girl, The First Grader) is tasked with trimming his story down to fit the confines of cinema, all the while keeping it gripping. The result of this, inevitably, is that crucial flashpoints in Mandela’s roller-coaster of a political career – his arrest, troubled marriages, the lure of the ANC – are stretched too thin, too fleeting to properly register. It occasionally has the feel of a long-winded essay cut down to meet a word limit, all without mention to Mandela’s controversial left-wing leanings.
The help is that we get a portrait of a character that accesses all areas while remaining thoroughly eventful. Starting his career in a courtroom startling a woman with his suggestive tongue, a young Nelson (a surprisingly well-cast Idris Elba) then puts his way with words to an altogether different use, entering a club with one woman, departing with another. Serving as a light reminder that Mandela was a bit of a womanizer, it gives us a better insight into the man before his momentous learning curve. This is a film about perseverance and defiance, but also about patience and reaching maturity.
After torridly navigating through Mandela’s early years, the theme of patience comes to the fore during Mandela’s 27-year spell at Robben Island, a prison with squalid living conditions, antagonistic guards, and appallingly short shorts. Arguably the strongest section of the film, the final half shows us Mandela’s charming effect on people, winning over an accommodating prison warden, and slowly improving the stay of he and his fellow cellmates. Minor triumphs like long trousers demonstrate the reward of a more moderate approach, and while Mandela’s growth isn’t always perfectly charted, you can just about see how he emerged the sadder and wiser man of his later years.
The conflict between that man and the one who was earlier drawn to militancy is drawn out deftly by his separation from Winnie (Naomie Harris), a woman whose experiences in a cell had an ultimately different effect. Winnie represents Nelson’s past, a sometimes inflammatory woman who was capable of whipping an audience into frenzy. Harris, perhaps not a natural fit for a character of Winnie’s hardness, actually struggles more with the dewy romance of her younger years. It’s in embodying the devout, impassioned Winnie that Harris comes into her own.
Although most factors in the film aren’t consistent, one thing never sways: the conviction, the compassion of Elba’s performance. It’s a role that might not have been his had Morgan Freeman not played Mandela in Invictus, but one that finally gives Elba the stage he deserves for his TV acting credits. And Elba doesn’t pass up the opportunity; though his burly stature doesn’t permit a complete Daniel-Day Lewis in Lincoln transformation, he gets most of the character beats right, a resilience and glint in his eye at the peak of youth, and a lifetime of wisdom and woe etched in his later disposition. Elba’s best bit of acting comes when he simply registers the sight of fallen bodies around him. Grave, graying, and kitted in Mandela’s trademark Madiba, it’s the highpoint of a performance as layered as it’s subject.
Some elements of Mandela’s history feel a bit scant, but this is still the most honest and comprehensive film about the man to date. Elba’s appealing performance helps of course.