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Review: Stately 'Mandela' humanizes an African icon

| Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

As Nelson Mandela, Idris Elba towers over the rest of the cast in “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” That's literally true and perfectly accurate. Mandela was tall, as is Elba (of the “Thor” movies and “Takers”). And Elba manages the voice and a hint of the presence of the great man.

He tends to tower over the movie, as well, in this comprehensive but generally dry account of one man's journey from upwardly mobile attorney to activist to revolutionary to statesman. There are no “name” actors arrayed against him as his South African oppressors.

With “Long Walk,” screenwriter William Nicholson and director Justin Chadwick manage a comprehensive history lesson that approaches, but never quite achieves, “epic.”

“Long Walk to Freedom” captures the womanizing attorney in 1942 who figures that “education, hard work and pride” are the secrets to his success and to that of any black South African. He just has to ignore all the times the white Boers call him “boy.”

Trying to get justice for a friend murdered in police custody is what radicalizes him. He finds his purpose and his voice, speaking out for equality.

His political activism and wandering eye cost him his first marriage. His life, his cause and the movie get a serious jolt of electricity when he meets, courts and marries his much-younger second wife, Winnie, in the late 1950s.

Naomie Harris is at her most beguiling in their courtship and marriage scenes, two modern Africans who don first Western wedding wear, then traditional tribal attire for their nuptials. Then, Harris lets us see the rage and hatred rise up in Winnie, the imprisonment, interrogations and mistreatment that fired her fury. Nelson was in prison, having been convicted of terrorism agitation, bombings of power plants and the like. Winnie, given even worse treatment (the film suggests), seethes. She decides to take everything to the next level.

In this script, Winnie is the counterpoint to Nelson's journey from principled revolutionary to pragmatic yet still principled negotiator and conciliator. He ages into wisdom and grows into the job of “leader.” Winnie dons combat fatigues and punishes “traitors” and “informers” within her own community in ways every bit as horrifying as the regime.

Snippets of newscasts feed us the decades it took for the world to pay attention to and devise a strategy (divestment, sanctions) to help him end apartheid.

And looming large above this “Long Walk” is Elba, in a mostly still performance, one of quietly compelling authority that dominates every moment — save for those when Harris shows up and sets the screen on fire.

Roger Moore is a staff writer for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.

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