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Winnie remains a mystery even after sympathetic film

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DARRELL Roodt's movie biography of Winnie Mandela has had a long ride to movie theatres since its premiere at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, and it's easy to see why.

Earnest and sometimes clunky, it tells a familiar story -- the road to black rule in South Africa -- with a literal-mindedness that is almost painful at times. People don't talk to one another, they make speeches ("I owe a debt of gratitude that I may never be able to repay," a husband tells his wife).

Important events are underlined with a montage of amusingly unlikely newspaper headlines ("Police crackdown!" gives way to "Mandela on the run" followed by "The world unites to fight apartheid"). A bombastic musical score reaches for the galaxies every time a vintage automobile crosses the veld. The characters are sometimes written as cardboard cut-outs, standing for this or that virtue.

And yet there's a drama in the story that is compelling if you scrape away the clichés. Winnie stars Terrence Howard in a powerful, if sometimes reverent, performance as Nelson Mandela, the fiery fighter for democracy ("Ours is a struggle for justice, not domination," he says in a typically casual remark) and Jennifer Hudson as Winnie, the brilliant and beautiful woman he married. When he was sentenced to life in prison for treason, she took over the cause, until eventually her own movement disowned her.

Roodt (Cry, The Beloved Country) has an on-the-nose style of storytelling that makes Winnie play like a TV movie-of-the-week at times, but his recreation of the South Africa of the past half century brings a realistic underpinning to the tale. When people aren't reading dialogue to one another, there is a feeling for the love story that is tested when Nelson is taken away by the brutal South African police -- represented by Elias Koteas's smirking officer, a man so mean he destroys Winnie's souvenir piece of wedding cake -- and sent to Robben Island prison.

It's at this stage that Winnie becomes her story, rather than the tale of a great man's wife, although not before a reporter gets to ask her on the courthouse steps, "Mrs. Mandela, what are your plans now that your husband has been sentenced to prison for life?" The answer is to fight, and Winnie -- dressed in a dizzying series of traditional costumes that give the movie a dash of style -- becomes a firebrand in her own right.

She becomes so powerful that she is arrested and, in the film's grittiest sequences, thrown into solitary confinement (designated by the "Solitary" sign over the cell) for almost a year. A slimmed-down Hudson -- who won an Oscar for her role in the rather less urgent drama of Dreamgirls -- finally gets to do some acting, not to mention some Acting, and Winnie's ordeal is the heart of the movie. She withstands cruel questioning and the psychological torture of solitary, where she eventually starts talking to the ants on the floor of her cell. Typically, however, Roodt has her cruel jailer enter the cell and stamp on the insects as if they were the repressed majority in a troubled nation.

Winnie doesn't shy away from the controversy at the end of her life when -- suddenly looking old in rather artificial-looking prosthetic makeup -- she re-enters an Africa where black groups have gone to war with one another. The film includes the famous incident of her "football club" of bodyguard thugs, and the death of 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi at her home (headline: "World leaders condemn Winnie Mandela"), but those looking for further insight won't find it here. What happened between Nelson and Winnie is glossed over in favour of heroic moments on the world stage.

That's too bad, because the love story that spanned a 27-year jail sentence is remarkable, and Winnie's role in South Africa's liberation deserves credit. Winnie shows sympathy for the ordeal of Winnie Mandela, but it never explains or reveals her beyond the big moments of her life. Winnie -- who is still alive, and still involved in the political life of South Africa -- remains a mystery.

-- Postmedia News

Movie Review


Starring Jennifer Hudson, Terrence Howard and Elias Koteas


Subject to classification

107 minutes

21/2 stars out of 5

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 5, 2012 D6

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