What becomes a legend most? After prolonged incubation, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom offers the biopic's usual reply: legend itself. Bigger, louder, more expensive legend, brought to bear by the best talents and technologies of the day.
The name Nelson Mandela is already shorthand for the things Mandela shows him to be: charismatic, driven, uncompromising, long-suffering, righteous. After almost 25 years in development, the project of pushing five decades of South African history through the filters and compressions of the form fell to director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) and writer William Nicholson. The result is, above all, a new vehicle for the Mandela legend — slick and efficient in the way history and its heroes can appear to be but surely are not.
The casting of Idris Elba in the title role, however, is a welcome surprise. As masculine as they come, Elba's hulking physique replaces the popular image of Mandela the wispy, benevolent grandpa with one of imposing, youthful vigor. A slow-motion prologue depicts the Xhosa ritual that carried Mandela into manhood; what follows is a hasty business. By 1942, Mandela is a lawyer with a higher calling as a lover: He slides a palm up numerous thighs, then marries, cheats, and splits in three neat scenes. When he plucks future wife Winnie (Naomie Harris) from a street corner, he is already involved with the African National Congress, the resistance movement (later a political party) formed to challenge white apartheid rule.
In Mandela, the stakes are self-evident. That's fair enough in a broader sense but little help to the viewer looking for something beyond the black-and-white. When police fire on peaceful protesters, killing 69, Mandela and the ANC wage guerrilla war, and the movie locks into a stultifying pattern: rousing speeches alternated with montages of either violence or celebration. Now the mother of two daughters, Winnie doesn't question her husband. "Fight them," she says. "I hate them so much." Her radicalization might have been one of Mandela's finer points, but instead plays out as a series of chaotic arrests and imprisonments, moments Harris manages to make emotionally intelligible despite a thinly drawn script.
Elba, too, inhabits a role that was designed to be worn. Across two and a half hours, despite his poor likeness, crafty makeup, and the camera's distracting habit, when in doubt, of admiring the spread of his shoulders and broad trunk of his neck, Elba acquires Mandela's secret look, the inexorable stillness of a man willing to wait history out. In 1963, Mandela was sentenced, along with several fellow ANC members, to life in prison; eventually, the government sought the help of the man they had helped turn into a legend.
"You alone are small; your people are mighty," a sentiment espoused by Mandela, is belied by his myth, and films like this one. But then, we need gods, and Mandela is not without the capacity to move, never more than when Elba infuses a line of would-be rhetoric — "Your freedom and mine cannot be separated" — with the force of truth.