Film review: Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom

Idris Elba catches the voice, but no amount of make-up can give him the presence. Picture: Contributed

Idris Elba catches the voice, but no amount of make-up can give him the presence. Picture: Contributed

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THE worldwide grief that followed Nelson Mandela’s death this month reminds us that he was that rare thing, a beloved politician. So is it too soon for a candid biopic to acknowledge both his achievements and his failings? Perhaps, but he certainly doesn’t deserve this unilluminating hagiography either.

Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom (12A)

Director: Justin Chadwick

Running time: 139 minutes

* *

Justin Chadwick (The First Grader) and screenwriter William Nicholson (Les Misérables and Shadowlands) have opted for an epic sprawl of celluloid which traces a Xhosa boyhood in rural South Africa, to Mandela’s rise through the initially non-violent African National Congress, and on to imprisonment for sabotage and conspiracy, before negotiating the end of apartheid and sweeping changes for the country. Over eight decades, the picture hits landmark events and speeches with dutiful regularity, but never lingers long enough to dig deep. Everything feels sketchy – a tragedy like the Sharpeville Massacre in the 1960s flies past in a minute. Other aspects are boiled down to archive montages – including a brief glimpse of a Scottish anti-apartheid placard – while missing altogether are Mandela’s salute to Fidel Castro or his willingness to extend an affable hand of friendship to Colonel Gaddafi. The infidelities during his first marriage – Mandela was a formidable ladies’ man in his day – are also glossed over. Without heft or nuance, this is a film so reverent that it makes Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi look like The People vs Larry Flynt.

Weird too, is the decision to cast The Wire’s Idris Elba as Mandela. A charismatic actor, Elba nails the voice but the look and presence defeat him. He’s also too old to play the ambitious twentysomething lawyer at the start of the biopic, and far too young and broad to play the older, frailer septuagenarian who stepped outside the prison gates. As the latter-day Madiba, Elba carries not only the weight of expectation, but also a ton of wig and latex work, which leaves the film in danger of suggesting that somehow Lethal Weapon’s Danny Glover became president of South Africa.

Naomie Harris as Winnie Mandela fares slightly better: Harris is terrific both as the sweet but savvy secretary who first meets Mandela, and as the angry militant. The souring of their marriage from soulmates to separate lives is one of the points where you wish this Mandela travelogue could stop and home in, especially since it makes some headway in contrasting the effects of imprisonment on both of them. Incarceration pushes Winnie towards fury and brutality, although the film soft-pedals her role in dreadful punishments meted against those perceived to have betrayed the movement. During his 27 years on Robben Island, however, Mandela embraces non-violence in defiance of the ANC, the government, and more radical protesters.

Maybe any movie that considers a song from Bono as a closing argument should be regarded as unlikely to find what we’re looking for. Mandela was a skilled political strategist who could charm nations, yet couldn’t find peace in his personal life – a man who lost almost three decades to a racist white government, then sat down with them to plot a peace. Unfortunately, Long Walk To Freedom renders such complexities into simple black and white.

Last Vegas (12A)

* * *

INCORRECTLY billed as a hip Hangover adventure for oldsters, Jon Turteltaub’s slick, sentimental comedy is closer to hip replacement: an artificial construct that keeps going chiefly thanks to sturdy underpinning from its oldest elements. A geriatric buddy comedy, Last Vegas unites Oscar winners Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline as childhood friends now hitting 70 like flies on a windscreen.

Wealthy, rascally Billy (Douglas), has impulsively decided to marry a woman less than half his age, and wants his friend to join him on a stag weekend. It’s a struggle at first for Archie (Freeman, below), who has had a mild stroke and is being micromanaged by an overzealous son, but Sam (Kline) is quickly despatched by his wife with a condom and Viagra to the weekend, in the hope that waking his libido may revitalise their marriage. Together they drag Paddy (De Niro) along too, despite his grudge against Billy for failing to attend his wife’s funeral.

Dan Fogelman’s script offers a few predictable pensées about ageing, and Morgan Freeman’s first taste of Red Bull (“it’s like getting drunk and electrocuted at the same time”), but any pep in this Pepto-Bismol comedy comes from its game stars making fun of themselves by coffin dodging on the dance floor, judging a poolside bikini contest, and passing themselves off as mobsters. Maybe a lapdance by Redfoo crosses a line, but De Niro raffled off his legacy years ago with Little Fockers and The Family.

OTHER RELEASES

The Missing Picture (12A)

* * * *

Using Claymation, archive footage and dioramas, Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh constructs a remarkable documentary about the devastating horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Glasgow Film Theatre, Friday until 9 January.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (15)

* * *

A spin-off from the found-footage series where families are terrorised by supernatural forces. After two Mexican teenagers investigate the aftermath of an occult ceremony, one of them (Andre Jacobs) develops odd bite marks. Later their camcorder picks up on his new superpowers, unnerved animals and children with awful contact lenses. The prime eerie sensation here is deja vu.

On general release from Wednesday.

Computer Chess (15)

* * *

A band of early 1980s computer nerds get over-competitive in a tournament to find the best chess software. Shot in Open University-style black and white, the shambling comedy has some glitches but eventually builds to moments of surreal ingenuity.

Glasgow Film Theatre, today and tomorrow.

Big Bad Wolves (18)

* * *

A vigilante cop and vengeful father join forces to mete out justice in this dark Israeli comedy thriller. Well acted, gruesomely violent and properly discomfiting. Glasgow Film Theatre, Thursday to Saturday.

In The Name Of (15)

* * *

A lonely young priest (Andrzej Chyra), in charge of a home for delinquent boys, struggles with the spiritual and the sexual in a Polish piece of angst.

Glasgow Film Theatre, Thursday to Saturday.

Age Of Uprising (15)

* *

Mads Mikkelsen stars as a 16th century French horse trader who takes arms against a feudal lord who wronged him in Arnaud Des Pallières’ stodgy period drama.

Glasgow Film Theatre, 10-16 January.

47 Ronin (12A)

*

Shades of The Seven Samurai, Keanu Reeves leads a group of warriors to avenge the killing of their shogun master. The fights are spectacular but this is another film that underscores the compelling magnetism of Reeves, until he starts talking.

On general release.

Twitter @SiobhanSynnot

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