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'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom' inspires with powerhouse performances

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

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With two powerhouse performances set to maximum advantage via elegant direction, "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" offers us much. Had the source material shared just the slightest bit more, it could have offered us the world. But the source material is Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, and it’s what he chose to tell us, and it’s well more than enough.

Idris Elba personifies Nelson Mandela
Idris Elba personifies Nelson MandelaThe Weinstein Company

"Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" brings us his interior experience of where his legs grew beneath him, where the walk started, and what those last few paces toward a balcony overlooking a roaring crowd meant to him.

What it does not bring us, and it’s worth knowing going in, is direct discussion of the global furor swirling around that prison which it was said he would never leave, in the world seemingly coming apart at the seams around the wife and children it was said he would never again touch.

This is not that story. This is the story of Nelson Mandela’s inner walk, from his perspective of the violent struggle happening first within, and then so far without, his reach.

And it’s a beauty.

Its strongest feature, not surprisingly, is the towering presence and performance of Idris Elba. Back with "Thor" in particular I marveled at his ability to command a serious presence merely by standing in place and uttering perhaps twenty words throughout the course of the film. He’s been a recognized, powerful presence for some time now, but with "Mandela" we get to see him really stretch his legs.

I’m so tremendously grateful to director Justin Chadwick for eschewing any prosthetic effect and simply allowing Elba’s portrayal to emerge through voice and posture alone (>gasp< acting!). Elba does not particularly resemble Mandela, but he comes to inhabit him completely and with inarguable clarity, much as did Angela Bassett with Tina Turner. In so doing, Elba comes to own the film completely and does tremendous honor and justice to his subject.

Close on the heels of Elba’s superb performance comes Naomi Harris as Winnie Mandela. As one might imagine, Nelson’s imprisonment was hers as well, and as we come to realize, in some ways its effects may even have been harsher on her.

Harris and Elba enjoy excellent onscreen chemistry, and it is easy to see why the Mandelas made such a formidable and loving team, but how their walks ultimately diverged. Life is driven by two forces: the events it brings to us and our response to them, and in the outcome sometimes even the closest bonds break, or must be voluntarily untied.

Such nuance amid such political ferocity can only be drawn by the most skilled hand, and Justin Chadwick’s hand was the perfect instrument for the job. Chadwick can depict a white hot, war-worthy conflict from inside a human heart, whatever that heart may contain.

One film of which I never tire, even after some probably ten viewings to date, is his "The Other Boleyn Girl". This, because Chadwick has the ability to keep us always mindful of the spectacular global effects of the conversation unfolding before us, even as he’s keeping us squarely within the emotional intimacies and drives of the individuals involved. It’s a talent that honors "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom", and the Mandela family itself, and I’m hard pressed to think of another director who could have done justice to the dynamic of this particular journey.

I do wish that Mandela had chosen to share with us the precision of his decision to forgive. He may well have elsewhere, but inclusion here would have drawn a full five stars from me. Still, we see its transformational effect in full force, and it is no strike against the film in its own right. (Queue up "Invictus" to see more of how Mandela continued to walk out the path of forgiveness during his presidency, and bring healing to the South African people.)

It’s worth mentioning, for those who may come to this film years hence, that Nelson Mandela passed away as his family attended its premiere screening in England. His daughters were taken aside and notified, and they elected to proceed with the event, only informing attendees at its conclusion.

Hours later, here on the other side of the pond, fellow media folk and I partook in a morning screening as North America learned of his exit. It was quite the surreal experience, particularly in finding out afterward that President Obama had made his address during the screening, saying, “He used to belong to us, but now he belongs to the ages.” Indeed.

Today we receive the wide release of Nelson Mandela’s astonishing walk on a day which for so many represents the highest hope for peace on Earth and overcoming the ills of a fallen world.

May it be so, whatever one’s tradition.

Story: The story of Nelson Mandela’s journey from a young man in rural South Africa through his imprisonment and into becoming his country’s first democratically elected president.

Genre: Drama, Biography

Starring: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris

Directed by: Justin Chadwick

MPAA: PG-13

Running time: 139 minutes

Official site: http://www.mandelamovie.co.za/

Houston release date: December 25, 2013

Tickets: Check Fandango, IMDb, or your local listings

Screened Dec 6th 2013 at the Edwards Grand Palace theater in Houston TX