While we usually tend to identify a biopic with the traditional Hollywood style of reverent, quasi-heroic takes on the important figures being portrayed, that has never been by any means an American exclusive. Case in point: this biopic of the late Nelson Mandela, a project masterminded for long years by South African producer Anant Singh after he secured from the man himself the rights for his autobiography (Mandela is said to have preferred to keep the film "in country", so to speak), but nevertheless as staid and reverent as it would be had it been an American or British production.

     British director Justin Chadwick's take on Mandela's autobiogaphy is a stodgy biopic-by-numbers that opts for the "selected highlights" approach to his life, from his initial coming-of-age Xhosa rite, following to his work as a lawyer in Johannesburg along Oliver Tambo, his growing involvement in the fight against apartheid, his courtship of Winnie Madikizela (a fiery Naomie Harris), his nearly 30-year prison term and his eventual release to become the leader of a new South Africa. There's nothing inherently wrong in that approach, even if the film's seal of approval from the Mandela family and friends (who served as consultants) will always mean this is the "official version of history". What is a problem is that you don't feel a little more commitment or a slightly skewed approach; take, for instance, Oliver Hirschbiegel's Diana, which might not have been a good film but at least did approach its subject from a different viewpoint than expected (granted, that wasn't an officially sanctioned project).

     None of that is forthcoming here: Idris Elba's noble portrayal of Mandela is certainly successful in getting at Mandela the person rather than Mandela the symbol (the best I've seen so far, including Morgan Freeman's in Clint Eastwood's minor Invictus), but Mr. Chadwick still plays up the symbolism at every possible juncture; while his actor colours in the areas meticulously, the director works in broad strokes, to occasionally strong but often predictably formatted, good-vs-evil results. But that was what was required of the British TV veteran: a bland "Reader's Digest" take on Mandela's life, an illustrated storybook that does not dishonour his life and memory. Mandela remains an inspiring figure, but this uninvolving film merely takes on the inspirational mantle to tell us in detail what we already knew.

Cast: Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge
Director: Justin Chadwick
Screenwriter: William Nicholson, from the autobiography of Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
Cinematography: Lol Crawley  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Alex Heffes
Designer: Johnny Breedt
Costumes: Diana Cilliers, Ruy Filipe
Editor: Rick Russell
Producers: Anant Singh, David M. Thompson (Videovision Entertainment in association with Distant Horizon, Origin Pictures, Pathé Productions, Long Walk to Freedom, Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa and National Empowerment Fund)
South Africa/United Kingdom, 2013, 147 minutes

Screened: distributor press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon, December 12th 2013

Nominated for the 2013 Academy Award for Best Original Song ("Ordinary Love")


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