The personal cost almost three decades in prison took on Nelson Mandela is the lasting impression once the U2 song plays and the credits roll for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, but exploring what made him forgive when he had every reason to hate lies just beyond its reach.
British actor Elba indelibly captures the vigour of Mandela as a young Johannesburg lawyer in 1942, turned charismatic orator and revolutionary fighting for equality in apartheid South African, who then becomes the incarcerated negotiator with the Government behind closed doors and finally the wise elderly father of a new nation from 1990.
Familiar with biopic beats from writing Gladiator and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, screenwriter William Nicholson delivers a portentous adaptation of Madiba’s autobiography.
No man is a saint and Nicholson and director Chadwick throw light on Mandela as a womaniser, absent father and as a treader of that fine line between freedom fighter and terrorist.
However, we are soon back to watching the comfortable myth we know, rather than engaging with the man we do not. How he occupied so much time on Robben Island remains a mystery.
This story becomes as much about Winnie Mandela. Fellow British talent Harris holds the screen in her own evolution, from young social worker and bride, to militant and mother who clashes with Nelson’s pacifism. We are left to wonder if Nelson’s zen-like U-turn on violence against the state would have survived the decades of intimidation and brutality Winnie suffered on the outside.
The husband and wife polar opposite directions South Africa could have taken when Mandela was released, when the majority demanded bullets not ballots, is unfortunately hurried in the film.
Long Walk to Freedom breaks into a sprint to show Mandela become a pope-like president at the end, avoiding the messy but no less compelling epilogue of a country thrust into seismic change with the legend as its only talisman.
Four stars (out of five)
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (M)
Starring: Idris Elba (Thor: The Dark World), Naomie Harris (Skyfall), Terry Pheto (The Bold and the Beautiful).
Director: Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl, Bleak House).
Screening: Reading Cinemas Queenstown