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Movie review: A big life gets a thoughtful treatment in ‘Mandela’

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Courtesy photo Idris Elba and Naomie Harris as Nelson and Winnie Mandela in "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom."

By Sean P. Means

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Dec 24 2013 10:40AM
Updated Dec 24, 2013 08:30PM

The movie "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" was completed well before Nelson Mandela died Dec. 5 — but it serves as a heartfelt and respectful memorial to the life of the former South African president and Nobel Peace Prize recipient.

Director Justin Chadwick’s biography, based on Mandela’s memoir, works most of its magic in the early scenes. That’s when we see a young, fit Mandela, played by the British actor Idris Elba ("Pacific Rim"), as an up-and-coming Johannesburg lawyer, offending white accusers of his black clients by daring to talk to them like an equal. The movie is not shy about showing Mandela’s faults, notably his sexual encounters and his infidelity to his first wife, Evelyn (Terry Pheto).

Mandela’s political career begins, the movie describes, with the 1948 election of the South African National Party — which instituted apartheid, the policy that forced black and colored South Africans to live apart from whites, and forced the nonwhites to carry papers or be jailed. Mandela accepts a recruitment offer from the African National Congress and soon is leading rallies protesting apartheid.

He also meets and romances Winnie Madikizela ("Skyfall’s" Naomie Harris), who shares his passion for politics. She supports his decision to go underground as the ANC begins a campaign of violence aimed at South African government institutions.

From there, the film chronicles Mandela’s arrest, trial and detention at Robben Island, where as Prisoner No. 46664 he begins his 27-year stay in prison. During this time, much of the movie’s focus turns to Winnie, who suffers brutal handling by the South African police and, as a result, becomes a radicalized foe of both the apartheid regime and of black collaborators of the white government.

The movie loses some of its potency in Mandela’s later years, as Elba’s incendiary performance is masked behind layers of old-age makeup. There are some interesting late scenes — as Mandela cagily negotiates with government leaders toward the end of apartheid, or when a post-release Mandela tangles with the power-driven Winnie — but not much of the fire that came before.

Chadwick ("The Other Boleyn Girl") and screenwriter William Nicholson (who co-wrote "Gladiator" and the movie version of the musical "Les Misérables"), to their credit, try to convey Mandela’s skill at delicate political maneuvers — something that most biopics would consider too difficult to dramatize. In the end, though, they can’t resist showing Mandela as less of a man and more of an icon.

movies@sltrib.com

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