Movie review: 'Mandela' just misses

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The tender moment is a reminder of the toll Nelson Mandela's principled stand against apartheid took on his marriage.

"Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" dramatizes the first time he has been able to touch his wife, Winnie, in two decades. He kisses her and says, "You haven't changed" but she has -- Winnie emerged from the crucible of surveillance, harassment, torture, isolation and banishment a different woman stiffened by anger, hate and militancy.

'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom'

Starring: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris.

Rating: PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and disturbing images, sexual content and brief strong language.

He, somehow, would became a model of forgiveness and reconciliation after spending 27 years in prison. The movie based on his autobiography arrives here 20 days after the death of the South African leader who was compared to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln by President Obama in his eulogy this month.

The London-born Idris Elba, now 41 and a Golden Globe winner for BBC America's "Luther" and a familiar face in films such as "Thor: The Dark World" and "Pacific Rim," plays Mandela from roughly age 23 to 76. He seems more robust than Mandela in his later years but helps the illusion by copying the leader's famous accent and enunciation to uncanny effect.

The fact that he is better than the overall movie seems to have dampened his awards chances although he is in a field with an embarrassment of rich performances.

"Mandela," directed by Justin Chadwick ("The First Grader," "The Other Boleyn Girl") and adapted by William Nicholson, tracks Mandela from herd boy in rural Transkei to his inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

It's an ambitious amount of time and the story sometimes suffers for it, jumping ahead with the help of on-screen time and place identifiers (such as 1948 Orlando Township, Soweto, or 1963 Palace of Justice) and occasionally glossing over some of the more unsavory elements.

The movie is remarkably effective in its Robben Island chapters; much of the island prison was replicated at Cape Town Film Studios.

"This is it, boy. Home -- for the rest of your life," a guard tells Mandela, whose days are spent in short trousers (until he wins a demand for long ones) cracking rocks with a pickax. They are rousted and forced into the rain at night, ordered to strip, have their cells tossed and denigrated, "You are nothing."

"Mandela," featuring Naomie Harris from "Skyfall" in a turn as noteworthy as Mr. Elba's, hits the high points and tells us what, who and where events transpired but not always the why and how.

Without the crutch of narration or letters or conversations with confidants, the movie doesn't always allow us to understand how the beloved statesman was able to develop and tap such deep reserves of passion, patience, sacrifice, dignity and forbearance. It's a good introduction, dramatization or reminder of a long walk to freedom but even at 141 minutes, it seems somewhat inadequate.


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog:

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