Arriving in theatres so swiftly after the death of its subject (it opens wide on Christmas), Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom plays less like an elegy for the South African leader than a case study in how to produce the blandest and most superfluous sort of bio-pic imaginable. Adapted by William Nicholson (Gladiator, Sarafina!) from Mandela’s own sprawling memoir, the film slavishly attempts to cram in every major event in Mandela’s long and fascinating life into 146 minutes of bit-scenes and trumpets: the development of his political consciousness his failed first marriage; his law career; his work as an activist—some say terrorist—with the African National Congress; his ideologically fraught second marriage to Winnie Madikizela, who would also become an activist of more radical views and strategies; his nearly three decades spent in prison; his ascent to presidency and the gnarly negotiations to bring an end to apartheid. The result is bullet-point biography, a protracted suite of the great man’s greatest hits, in which every event is so compressed as to resemble a Wikipedia page more than a narrative film. How could it be otherwise? Such projects, driven by reverence but devoid of artistry or deeper curiosity, almost never work.
It’s a shame for many reasons, not the least being that the film’s star, Idris Elba (The Wire), is a talented, extremely compelling actor. Elba looks almost nothing like Mandela, has to eventually wear some awful looking age make-up, and his Tyson-like build makes it seem like he fought apartheid not with his wits but his bare hands. He also has to utter a lot of banal dialogue (“Something’s got to change!”), though there is little dialogue of any other sort in Long Walk to Freedom, which actually resorts to exchanges like “You are Nelson Mandela” and “You are Winnie Madikizela” to keep us oriented. It should be noted however that the Mandela-Madikizela union is the one element in the film that comes closest to offering something beyond the sort of Coles Notes take on Mandela’s life. As portrayed by Naomie Harris, Madikizela, over time, at least offers some contrast to her husband’s steadfast non-violence, which otherwise goes unquestioned. So much else here is sketchy at best. You certainly won’t walk away from Long Walk with any real sense of what prompted the chaos of apartheid’s final years. The film is a series of heroic poses—iconography over insight. This hugely complex and important figure deserves so much more. Or maybe less—you always have to wonder if the movies shouldn’t just let certain people be. There are other, sometimes much better, ways to consider a life.