By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
6:00 PM EST, November 27, 2013
Katniss Everdeen, it turns out, is not the only person catching fire this fall. She's matched flame for flame by Nelson Mandela and his wife, Winnie, who burn with formidable fury in the sturdy biopic "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom."
It is the incendiary work of British actors Idris Elba and Naomie Harris as the couple in question that elevates our involvement in this authorized film version of Nelson Mandela's autobiography. That, and the astonishing course of Mandela's life.
For though it's a story we've heard so often that we perhaps take it for granted, seeing all the events of this remarkable journey laid out for us in a two-hour and 21-minute feature underlines its not-to-be-believed qualities.
It's not just the trajectory that took Mandela from 27 years in prison — most of them in a tiny cell on an isolated island he was never expected to leave alive — to the presidency of South Africa and becoming one of the respected statesmen in the world that makes this story so dramatic. It's the remarkable psychological journey that went along with it.
As detailed in William Nicholson's solid screenplay, Mandela changed several times over. He went first from being concerned only with being a successful lawyer to the leader of an ambitious political party. Then he embraced violence as necessary to achieving political aims before renouncing violence and making it stick. That is a long walk indeed.
Making this passage even more intriguing is that it was made at great personal cost, especially in terms of marriage and family. Nelson and Winnie went from ecstatic soul mates to really not speaking the same language. One of the most poignant lines in Nicholson's script has Mandela saying, referring to the actions of the country's apartheid government against him, "What they did to her was their only victory."
Directed by Britain's Justin Chadwick, who had extensive TV experience before his breakout features "The Other Boleyn Girl" and "The First Grader" (also starring Harris), "Mandela" does fall into the illustrated history style of filmmaking. That means a good-looking film with detailed re-creations (Lol Crawley was the cinematographer), including vintage township locations and significant incidents such as 1960's Sharpeville Massacre. It also means that the film's tone is inevitably celebratory — but given the trajectory of this man's story, how could it be otherwise?
South African producer Anant Singh tried to make this film for so long that almost every black actor you can name was considered for the role, but it's hard to imagine any of them doing a better job than Elba.
Beyond memorable as "The Wire's" cool, calculating Stringer Bell, Elba just about defines charisma in a performance that capitalizes on the actor's innate dignity and strength. When he speaks, his words have the same kind of power we've heard from Mandela himself.
After a brief, obligatory section on his childhood, "Mandela" takes us to 1942 Johannesburg, where Nelson is a successful lawyer, natty in three-piece suits and a favorite with women. He is aware of being a second-class citizen in his own country but thinks success will erase those barriers.
Radicalized by events, Mandela joins the African National Congress and comes to understand that in unity there is strength. The time he gives to the movement, plus his frequent womanizing, destroy his first marriage to the God -fearing Evelyn Mase (Terry Pheto), which leaves him single when he meets Winnie.
It is not easy holding the screen with Elba's Mandela, but Harris' strong, confident Winnie does exactly that, even in the early days of their relationship. "I heard you have a lot of girlfriends," she tells him provocatively. "I'm different."
Things change for the Mandelas after the Sharpeville Massacre, a key manifestation of out-of-control government violence. Deciding that nonviolence is over, Mandela goes underground, participates in bombings of power stations and is finally captured, put on trial and sentenced to life without parole on Robben Island.
Though its attempts to break Nelson's spirit prove futile, the state has better luck with its systematic abuse of Winnie, and some of "Mandela's" best sequences come, courtesy of Harris' fine performance, in showing how this tortured woman came to be consumed by justifiable anger and what that led to.
Mandela is over 70 when he finally gains his freedom, and though Elba is imprisoned a bit by his aging makeup, the film is good at detailing what was perhaps his greatest feat, using his political skills, convictions and strength of personality to keep the country from splitting into violent factions. This may be a familiar story, but it is one worth experiencing again and again.
'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and disturbing images, sexual content and brief strong language
Running time: 2 hours, 19 minutes
Playing: In general release
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