Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is respectful. I'll give it that.
The nearly two-and-a-half-hour summation of the recently deceased South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and politician is conventional to the point of rudimentary, as it chronicles Mandela's life from idealistic lawyer to political prisoner to world leader. British actor Idris Elba plays the man himself, presenting a magnetic, reverent portrayal of Mandela despite Elba's hulking frame and debonair good looks. (Seriously, when is Hollywood gonna give this dashing, charismatic actor more leading-man roles?)
With director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) and screenwriter William Nicholson (Les Misérables) adapting Mandela's 1994 autobiography of the same name, the film predictably yet efficiently plows through the Mandela history. It hits us with the man's flaws early, showing how his skirt-chasing ways and his dedication to fighting apartheid broke up his first marriage. Of course, this would lead to Mandela finding a soul mate—in both romance and freedom fighting—in future wife Winnie Mandela (Naomie Harris), who kept the revolutionary fires burning as he was serving a life sentence for attempting to overthrow the state.
Freedom is as earnestly sweeping and grandiose as you'd expect from a Great Man Biopic, which would also explain why it seems so safe and limited. The movie goes about checking off all of Mandela's eventful moments in the most deferential and inoffensive manner, with Elba and Harris doing fine, acceptable work as the legendary partners in love and war. Admirable intentions aside, the movie's desire to be bait for Oscar voters—this is a Harvey Weinstein production, after all—seems to be a greater priority than giving a compelling, layered portrait of Mandela.
I will say that of all the Oscar-bait movies the Weinstein Company has released this holiday season, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is one that won't make you grimace in agony while you're watching it.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Masters of the universe."