December 25, 2013 at 1:00 am

Tom Long

Review: 'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom' simply takes on too much

Talented Idris Elba is Nelson Mandela in 'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.' (Keith Bernstein / Weinstein Co.)

‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” is more of a long walk to frustration.

That’s because despite fine performances from Idris Elba as the South African leader and Naomie Harris as his wife, Winnie, there’s no way the entirety of Nelson Mandela’s life is going to fit into a two-and-a-half hour movie. Or a four-and-a-half hour movie for that matter.

The man lived to be 95. He spent 27 of those years in prison. He transformed the government and culture of South Africa. You can’t squeeze all that down into a movie. Yet that’s what director Justin Chadwick and screenwriter William Nicholson try to do with “Long Walk.” The result feels more like a compressed, dutifully respectful history lesson than a flesh-and-blood portrait.

We first meet Mandela here as a teen undergoing a tribal initiation. Then he’s suddenly a lawyer and amateur boxer whose first wife leaves him because he’s also a womanizer. Then he meets and woos Winnie at the same time he’s beginning to lead protests against the oppressive apartheid system.

He essentially becomes a terrorist in his own country, even advocating violence, and eventually he’s caught and thrown in prison in 1962. The 27 years he spent there fly by rather quickly in the film. His chief accomplishment while there seems to be winning the right for political prisoners to wear long pants instead of shorts.

The South African government finally releases Mandela, and he helps negotiate the terms of a nonapartheid government. He has calmed, but Winnie has become increasingly radical, and they split. Winnie’s radical turn is given short shrift here, but then again, everything is given short shrift.

With a life of such scope, it’s better to look in on one chapter in depth, as Steven Spielberg did with “Lincoln.” The life of Nelson Mandela is simply too big, too complex and too important to be contained in one movie.

'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom'

GRADE: C+

Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and disturbing images, sexual content and brief strong language

Running time: 139 minutes

tlong@detroitnews.com
twitter.com/toomuchTomLong

More Tom Long