Screenwriter William Nicholson (Shadowlands, Nell, Les Miserables) has adapted Mandela's autobiography for the screen, a difficult task in compressing 94 years of life into 150 minutes of screen time.
It is clearly the material for a television mini-series. However, audiences will be pleased to have this cinema biography available.
The film is in the traditional biopic style, a fairly straightforward presentation of Mandela’s life. It follows his life chronologically, with some alerting sequences when he was a boy, his family, initiation ceremonies in the 1920s.
We also see something of his early professional life as a lawyer, an excellent scene which sets a tone for the film where a black woman is accused of stealing a white woman’s lingerie, the woman in high dudgeon at being questioned by a black man who effectively wins the case for the accused, not without some humour. But, at this stage, he is not politically active, though sought after by the African National Council.
Injustices are dramatised effectively, and the humiliating treatment by the white population. With the legislation for apartheid in 1948, Mandela, who had married and had a family, opts for protest, leaving his wife and family, and becoming involved politically. He becomes increasingly radicalised, showing his abilities in leadership. As is well-known, after the failure of protest, he opts for some sabotage activity, shown briefly in the film, and he and his comrades are arrested, tried, and, to avoid making them martyrs, the judge sentences them to life imprisonment.
Many audiences will be aware of this part of Mandela’s life, but it is interesting for it to be fleshed out, however briefly. It was at this time that he encountered Winnie whom he married. The group is sentenced to Robben Island, off the coast at Cape Town.
For those interested in Mandela’s influence on South African politics, the film shows the discussions with the white politicians, with President De Klerk, the combination of shrewdness and practical idealism that marked Mandela’s ability to change South Africa. After his release, there were riots and killings of traitors amongst the black Africans (shown graphically).
But, in showing the broadcast where he spoke plainly, offered leadership, explaining that fighting the whites was a war that could not be won, we see him as the elder statesman, stressing peace. His final words in the film are about people not being born haters, their having to learn that, but that human beings are born with the capacity to love.
Idris Elba is able to capture the manner and the speech patterns of Mandela. Perhaps he is made to look too old before his time and audiences may focus on the make-up for the older Mandela, a bit too obvious. But this does not detract from the performance and the communication of the spirit of Mandela.
While the story of the man himself is familiar, and he is seen - not perfect - as strong, even with touches of heroic leadership, from his early years, it is the story of Winnie that is dramatically effective.
This is a worthy film, and an opportunity for audiences to obtain more knowledge about Mandela, about Apartheid, about South African politics, and the extraordinary phenomenon that was Nelson Mandela himself.
- Fr Peter Malone
Starring Idris Elbar, Naomie Harris. Directed by Justin Chadwick. 141 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes, violence and coarse language).
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.