If you don’t review a film right away someone will come along and post your thoughts. Sure enough the opening paragraph of Scott Foundas‘s Variety review of Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom expressed my exact feelings about this Weinstein Co. release. It’s a “classic” biopic in the sense that it feels like it was made 30 or 40 years ago. It’s basically the life of Nelson Mandela by way of the sensibility of Richard Attenborough‘s Gandhi (’82). That makes it a reverential but generally mediocre film about a great man and a great saga, but one that is saved or at the very least enobled by Idris Elba‘s stirring, highly charismatic performance as Mandela — the first breakthrough performance that the 41 year-old Elba has given on the big screen or anywhere else for that matters.
This is a respectably safe, square and stodgy movie in which the political marches and demonstrations almost feel like they’ve been choreographed by a Broadway musical pro. (When an occasional political song is sung the demonstrators sing in harmony.) Like Foundas says, screenwriter William Nicholson has written a “CliffsNotes version of Mandela’s nearly 700-page memoir” that “is slathered in golden sunsets, inspirational platitudes and John Barry-esque strings.” The music drove me half-crazy, I must say. And it should be noted that while several relatively recent biopics (including Stephen Frears‘ Philomena) have dropped the facade during their closing credits to show the audience what the main characters really look[ed] like, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is the first biopic to use real-life images at the midway point as we see photos and likeness of the real Mandela on banners and placards during a political demonstration — a bit of a jolt.
So while Mandela may perform well commercially, forget it as a Best Picture contender (not a chance in hell). But count on Elba getting hominated for Best Actor — that’s the almost-certain bottom line.
Among the many disappointments is that Terry Pheto, so memorable and beautiful in Tsotsi and Catch A Fire, is stuck playing the thankless role of Mandela’s first wife, Evelyn, whom he cheated on. I was looking to see her go to town and rip it up, but no — it’s not that kind of role or movie. Sorry.