The pitfalls of making biopics are manifold, from the trap of hero worship to the more pressing matter of distilling something as unwieldy as a person’s life into two hours. Those potential problems are magnified when the movie is about Nelson Mandela. It’s hard not to feel a bit worshipful when considering his epic accomplishments. And then there’s his life: It wasn’t just supremely eventful; it can’t be told without also delving into the complicated history of South Africa.
“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” does a worthy job of honoring both its subject and its audience. It can feel, at times, both overlong and oversimplified, but the story propels itself along while awakening in viewers some profound emotions. That latter achievement is thanks largely to the film’s star, British actor Idris Elba, who has transformed himself in recent years from an inner-city Baltimore drug kingpin on “The Wire” to a London detective with a dark side on the television series “Luther” to this beloved freedom fighter, who died Dec. 5. Elba looks not at all like Mandela, and yet his demeanor, not to mention his impressive accent, captures the icon. (Elba was nominated last week for two Golden Globes, one for his role in this movie, and another for “Luther.”)
The sweeping narrative begins with Mandela as a child in a South African village before fast-forwarding to 1942 Johannesburg, where he’s become a lawyer. William Nicholson, who adapted the screenplay from Mandela’s autobiography, selects telling moments, including a scene in which the young lawyer asks a white woman pointed questions during a trial, leaving her flabbergasted, then enraged, while he remains unflappable.
During this period, Mandela met the first of his three wives, and the movie doesn’t shield us from the prolific adultery that broke up his marriage. Soon after, he met Winnie Madikizela (played with grit and so much heart by Naomie Harris), who would become his second wife and ideological partner as he began contemplating the shortcomings of his peaceful resistance to apartheid.
Things were not getting better for black South Africans; in fact, they were getting much, much worse. As evidence, the movie cuts to the massacre at Sharpeville in 1960, when police officers opened fire on unarmed civilians, killing 69.
The story also covers Mandela’s 27 years in jail, his early release, the dissolution of his second marriage and his election to office. On a more human level, it also captures the loneliness that Mandela felt when he chose to forgive the government that imprisoned him and seek peace when so many of his compatriots (and Madikizela) wanted to keep fighting.
There’s a bit of heavy-handed music and some soft-focus flashbacks, but director Justin Chadwick seems to understand that the narrative alone doesn’t need much dressing up.
What’s perhaps most interesting is the persistent melancholy that pervades the film, especially toward the end as Mandela achieves more that he hoped to, not just ending apartheid but becoming the leader of his nation. Mandela may not have been a martyr in the traditional sense, even though he made clear during his trial that he would die for his beliefs. But he still gave up his life for the cause. He wasn’t around to raise his daughters or bury his son, and the marital relationship he clung to while incarcerated crumbled. “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” may not always elegantly tell its story, but the film ably illustrates what an important story it was.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some intense sequences of violence and disturbing images, sexual content and brief strong language. 139 minutes.