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Film review: Mandela biopic captures little of the real man

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Idris Elba is a great actor in a mediocre biopic, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

Two stars

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge. Directed by Justin Chadwick. Rated PG-13. Now playing.

There’s enough material in Nelson Mandela’s life to make at least a dozen movies (Clint Eastwood made an entire feature based solely on the South African leader’s support of a single rugby tournament), but Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom decides to cram almost all of it into one movie, resulting in a formulaic bullet-point biopic that does little to capture Mandela’s personality or political significance.

Beginning with Mandela’s early days as a lawyer in 1940s South Africa, the movie chronicles nearly his entire adult life, as he gets involved in anti-apartheid activism, becomes increasingly militant, is arrested and convicted of terrorist activities, spends 27 years in prison and is eventually released and elected South Africa’s first post-apartheid president (the rugby tournament came just after that). Director Justin Chadwick and screenwriter William Nicholson, working from Mandela’s own autobiography, make frequent leaps forward in time, and star Idris Elba barely has time to establish Mandela’s viewpoint and personality before he’s buried under dodgy old-age makeup.

The movie, too, barely establishes one set of circumstances for Mandela before moving on to the next, and while the trappings of importance are there, the story feels threadbare, as if the significant historical events are happening in the background. Elba is especially compelling in his scenes as the younger Mandela, and Naomie Harris offers a strong counterpoint as his fellow-activist second wife Winnie. If the movie had stopped to focus on any one of its potentially interesting elements, it might have ended up worthy of their performances.

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