Nelson Mandela has been portrayed on film before, but his own biography has never been given the full biopic treatment. Until now. Starring Idris Elba as the famous president and Naomie Harris as his wife Winnie, the film follows Mandela from 1942 to 1994 covering all the major moments in his life. Watch the trailer after the jump and then read my review.

I will admit I did not have high expectations for this film after the trailer, but can happily announce it exceed those expectations. The film covers so much ground in Mandela’s life with huge set pieces, elaborate action scenes and tons of extras. I was really surprised with how much of Mandela’s life this movie includes.

Producer Anant Singh and Director Justin Chadwick talked before the screening about the vast amount of research they did to prepare for the film. They met with almost all of the major people involved in Mandela’s life, including Mandela himself. Mandela picked Singh to adopt his book and had seen an early version of it. It was very clear there was a lot of care put into the movie and that they wanted to get it right.

This was especially true with Idris Elba as Mandela. The way he transforms into the role is amazing, especially in the later years. Singh said they used some prosthetic to do it and that when the real Mandela saw it he said “Is that me?”. That reaction does not surprise me at all.

But it’s Elba’s performance that is truly impressive. The title is Long Walk to Freedom and Elba shows that struggle in he speaks and the way he moves. He is clearly suffering, but determined to do what is right for his country. We see him at his lowest and his highest and Elba rises to the occasion on both fronts. It was a surprise for sure and this might be Elba’s career defining role.

Naomie Harris is fine as the feisty Winnie Mandela, especially the scenes where she is really angry. Which is quiet often. However, her character started to annoy me later in the film. The writers put a lot of focus on the couple’s split late in life, which is probably why I feel this way. Winnie Mandela was just as committed to the cause as Nelson, but she wanted to do it in a different way. And the way the Chadwick approach that relationship in the early 1990’s, paints her as wrong and disobedient to Nelson, which is a bit harsh.

While the story was carefully constructed from Mandela’s own biography and interviews with those who knew him, it isn’t perfect. Not the plot, but the pacing, especially early on. In the first 20-30 minutes of the movie, Mandela gets married twice, which felt very rushed. On the opposite end, his 27 years in prison at times felt like we were watching every day of that sentence. And clocking in at 152 minutes, they probably could have cut some scenes from the prison.

Regardless, this will be the definitive film adaptation of Mandela’s life, the same way Lincoln was last year. I came in expecting it to be like his superhero origin story but instead it is a credible biopic that will stand the test of time. The film explores many different angles on what made Mandela the man he is and there was a lot of effort put in to make it feel real. On top of that, Idris Elba becomes Mandela in an amazing way, which is the key to any story of this scale.

I hope Singh, Chadwick and Elba get to show Mandela the film before he dies. I think he would really enjoy it.

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