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The hard road

Nelson Mandela's journey an inspiring tale, but biopic restrained

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At nearly 2 1/2 hours, this biopic of the late Nelson Mandela is, as its title hints, a bit of a long haul.

But with Mandela's recent passing, the film's timing is fortuitous, especially in that it ultimately presents the South African leader as a man, not a saint. This is not some contemporary equivalent of a Bible epic.

Casting Idris Elba as Mandela helps. Elba has charm, but is not averse to presenting Mandela as a man of earthly passions, and even violence, at least in his youth.

We are introduced to him as a young lawyer who enjoys a certain advantage when it comes to defending black clients from white accusers. Such was the deep racial divide that white witnesses would not stand to be even questioned by a black lawyer.

Young Mandela states a belief in education and hard work to effect change within the system, but he is eventually radicalized by the sheer brutality of the white regime, compelling him to join the African National Congress, where he emerges as a leader.

Along the way, he dumps one wife and marries another, Winnie (Naomie Harris, entrancing), a woman who shares his intelligence and political fervour.

The ANC practises more sabotage than violence, but is deemed a terrorist organization by the South African government. When Mandela is captured, he and his fellow ANC leaders are given life imprisonment instead of a death sentence, not out of any sense of mercy from Pretoria, but to avoid any potential for national martyrdom.

At this point, the film schisms between Nelson and Winnie. Nelson endures the petty cruelty of life in the prison on Robben Island. Winnie, left on her own to raise their two daughters, suffers more intensely. She is arrested at random, torn from her family, tortured and, at one point, left in solitary confinement for 18 months. The film is not without sympathy for Winnie, even as her radicalization embraces the notions of violence and revenge.

In America, the division between violent and non-violent revolution has always been represented by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King; in South Africa, the division is embodied between man and wife.

Director Justin Chadwick manages to avoid a hagiography of Mandela by employing some restraint in delineating his particular gifts: Rhetoric, wit and a big-picture view of political reality, encompassing compromise.

Perhaps he was too restrained. Steven Spielberg managed to convey those exact same attributes in last year's biopic Lincoln, but he also delivered rousing entertainment, courtesy of a screenplay by Tony Kushner. Chadwick is obliged to make do with a by-the-numbers screenplay by William Nicholson, based on Mandela's own autobiography.

Notwithstanding very good work by Elba and Harris, this movie registers as more inspiring than inspired.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 23, 2013 D1

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