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Review: 'Mandela' doesn't do justice to the life of the icon

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For a towering figure such as Nelson Mandela, the cinematic story of how he endured years of incarceration to eventually rise to the seat of president of South Africa, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, is the equivalent of a shoulder shrug.

The movie opens on Christmas Day.

That it comes just weeks after his death makes that just a bit difficult to swallow because this should have been a movie about so much more.

Instead Justin Chadwick (The Other Boelyn Girl), who directs from a script by William Nicholson (Les Miserables), produces a by-the-numbers film biography that loses much of the depth of the man and the emotion associated with him.

Perhaps that’s a product of Mandela living a life of such scope that it’s difficult to encapsulate it on screen in a mere 139 minutes. However, when you consider that Martin Scorsese dedicated almost three hours to a Wall Street scoundrel’s story in The Wolf of Wall Street, certainly there is more time to explore the life of Mandela.

Then again, perhaps it’s quality that means more than quantity. If that’s what is sought, then Mandela comes up short for a number of reasons. But what people will remember most in that regard is that Nicholson’s script and the way the film was edited leaves much of the emotional heft of Mandel’s story to be assumed. In that respect it lacks balance. No one wants something overwrought that manipulates the audience but something a little more involving than what’s presented here would be nice.

A perfect example: Mandela’s first visit with his oldest daughter who’s not seen him since childhood proved remarkably void of emotion.

Ditto his reactions after 27 years of imprisonment. Chadwick seems perfectly content to paint Mandela as a man who was completely without bitterness toward his captors who imprisoned him because he appeared to have sparked a movement capable of ending South Africa’s system of apartheid.

The film, which is based on a book in which Mandela confessed that bitterness, but kept it buried inside, is content to present this version of Mandela – the man who told the blacks of South Africa that he’d forgiven his captors. Ultimately, that may have been very true, but there is no way that a person – man or woman – can lose 27 years of his or her life and not feel anything.

The fact that Mandela didn’t show the aftermath to his people is well and good, but any honest film would present it to its audience. Chadwick chooses a different path.

What he can’t be faulted for is his selection in the individual to play Mandela. Idris Elba is an actor who can give a figure the gravitas needed on the screen. He’s the one aspect of the movie that makes it worth watching.

Still Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is an imitation of what it could have been.

Movie: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Director: Justin Chadwick
Cast: Idris Alba, Naomie Harris
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Rated: PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and disturbing images, sexual content and brief strong language.
Running time: 139 minutes
George’s rating: 3-of-5 stars
Check for theaters and showtimes at Atlas Cinemas, Cleveland Cinemas, Fandango.com and MovieTickets.com

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