British actor Idris Elba’s brilliant performance captures Nelson Mandela’s bravery, resilience, humility and sense of fun at every turn.
But while this is his Gandhi (1982), the script by Oscar-nominated screenwriter William Nicholson (Shadowlands / Gladiator) cannot quite escape the long, autobiographical shadow of the late South African president.
Every time the film might have cut loose as a drama, it either holds back or we simply move on to another time, losing the heightened sense of intimacy that Nicholson has just created.
The 139 minutes aren’t long enough whenever the action is shot with the compelling energy of a Paul Greengrass Bourne-style film by Shrewsbury-born cinematographer Lol Crawley (Four Lions).
But like other biopics Ray (2004), J Edgar (2011) and The Butler (2013), Mandela drags at other points by seeking to cover too much ground with a 95-year-old subject whose wives include Winnie Madikizela (Naomie Harris).
As an alternative to cramming so much in, Manchester-born director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) might have filmed Mandela’s first day in prison and/or his last.
As a lawyer who turns to violence, Mandela says: “They are calling me a terrorist. I will not give myself up to a government I don’t recognise. I want my children to walk free in their own land.”
Most crucially, after his 27 years in jail: “There will be no revenge... there is only one way forward and that is peace.
“If I can forgive them, you can forgive them. We cannot win a war, but we can win an election. And when an election comes – vote.”
Mandela’s legacy through this film will hopefully be to pressure any state wanting to wage war on its own people, especially when its underdog subjects seem to have little power, rights and justice as a platform for honest defence.