THE TIMING is uncanny. Nelson Mandela's own daughters, Zindzi and Zenani, were at a screening of Justin Chadwick's Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom when they learned of the former South African president's passing at the age of 95 on December 5. (Also in the audience were a couple o' nobodies named Prince William and Kate.) It's nearly impossible to overstate how widely beloved Mandela is—that's what you get for leading a battered country out of apartheid—and how complex his legacy remains, intertwined with the complicated history of South Africa. Chadwick is clearly mindful of the gravity, and gamely shoehorns all he can into two-and-a-half hours, but one has the sense there's room for a project of much greater thoroughness. Timing aside, this will not be the definitive telling of Mandela's story.
Chadwick's approach is formal, taking one long sweep through Mandela's life—his early innocence in a rural village, some gentle prodding at his womanizing years, his transformation into an activist (both with and without violence), prisoner, secret advisor, political hero... it's exhausting just to list, much less depict in compelling detail. But there's an air of dignity in the intent, as though Hollywood giving the man the old-fashioned biopic treatment is a traditional ritual of respect.
The effort has been largely shouted down at a time when the preservation of Mandela's image is perhaps more important than ever. Despite the legitimate criticism that Mandela glosses over too much, its performances are undeniable: Idris Elba in the lead is unwavering, but it's Naomie Harris as Mandela's wife, Winnie, who is the most riveting, a frightening revolutionary possessed by rage. One might rather see these roles played out in more leisurely, detailed context—Mandela's quick shifts give the air of time passing in a stage production—but wanting more of something is better than not wanting it at all.