‘Long Walk to Freedom’ fails to measure up to Mandela’s legacy

Reviewer’s Rating: ★★ 1/2

“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” a biopic released days before its celebrated subject died at 95, is an earnest, workmanlike shadow of Nelson Mandela.

Because Mandela, the first black president of South Africa, led such an epic life, one would have hoped that this timely biopic would be inspirational. At times during its two-hour and 19-minute length, “Long Walk to Freedom” is moving, but it largely doesn’t invite emotional involvement.

Two British filmmakers — director Justin Chadwick (“The Other Boleyn Girl” and British TV productions) and screenwriter William Nicholson (“Gladiator,” “First Knight,” “Les Miserables”) — based “Long Walk to Freedom” upon Mandela’s 1994 autobiography. The filmmakers wisely resist the temptation to make Mandela a secular saint, yet they also fall short of illustrating the magnitude of his accomplishment.

Two British-born actors, Idris Elba and Naomie Harris, play the film’s principal characters, Mandela and his second wife, Winnie. These are strong performances that carry the characters through decades, but the actors remain earthbound by the film’s shallow depth and horizon-bound vision.

Mandela and his inner circle are here. So is the regime that oppressed them and black South Africans’ protests and the government’s violent response. But “Long Walk to Freedom” is a frustratingly conventional film. It relies upon such overly familiar techniques as childhood flashbacks and Elba’s narration.

A quick introductory sketch of Mandela’s youth and childhood concentrates on a coming-of-age ceremony marred by faux mysticism. Mandela’s father, Elba says in voice-over, named him Troublemaker.

“I didn’t want to make trouble,” Elba says with gentle humor. “I just wanted to make my family proud.”

Elba, 41, portrays Mandela from age 23 to 76. He’s seen as a young lawyer in Johannesburg; in his early days with the African National Congress; during the ANC’s bombing campaign against the South African-government’s sanctioned repression of non-whites; and, in broad strokes, 27 years of imprisonment.

The beating death of a friend, Jackson Dladla (Thomas Gumede), by police prompts the initially disinterested Mandela to join the ANC. The rallies and protests that follow are ripe for drama but the film’s renditions of them, despite large crowd scenes, are not quite stirring.

Elba does everything his role as it’s written asks of him. His Mandela is smart, angry, hurt, exasperated, wise, patient. But there’s more surface in the part than heart. Even the 1963-’64 sabotage trial of Mandela and 10 others, during which he delivered his “Speech from the Dock,” lacks anything as powerful as the speeches Denzel Washington gives as Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic of the slain American civil rights leader.

Elba’s vocal impression of Mandela is excellent, but that’s no substitute for a deeper measure of the man who changed his nation and the world. Sincere though “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” is, a great film about Mandela has yet to be made.