Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

It is, too.

Justin Chadwick’s retelling of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography offers a 140-minute slog through the South African revolutionary’s life highlights, tells us nothing about the man we didn’t already know, and leaves us altogether unenlightened. It’s a common problem with biopics of famous figures, but here it seems all the more damaging. It may be a rare case of the man being greater than the legend.

Try as he might, Idris Elba cannot channel the enigmatic mix that made Mandela so captivating, and so much ground is covered that the film slides into the common biopic pitfall of rushing through events. Mandela talks to Winnie for the first time in one scene; in the next they are getting married.

By refusing to steer too far away from the source, very little of Mandela’s impact is felt. We can see the enormous crowds gathering to support him, but we never really learn why they’ve gathered for him. In the book, that’s down to Mandela’s modesty, but this film breaks his perspective too often to claim it isn’t interested in such macro detail.

I can’t be too unkind. Compared to Diana, this is perfectly functional. It never induces cringes, delivers dialogue cliche or indulges in invention beyond the realms of plausibility. But these are pretty basic requirements, actually, and not entirely worth recommending. There’ll be an audience for this, but they’d be better off reading the book, for at least then they’re getting the benefit of the primary source.

In the time of Mandela’s death, Chadwick’s film will serve as epitaph. Whether it deserves to is up for debate. My feeling is that it falls a little short, but it could certainly have been worse. An extraordinary man probably deserved better than an ordinary film.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is in UK cinemas on January 3rd.