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Sunday, January 25, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is hero worship, but what a hero
Portrait or pedestal?
Elba captures Mandela's essence.
Elba captures Mandela's essence.

The release of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom could not be better timed. The worldwide face of the anti-Apartheid movement died earlier this month at age 95. He was laid to rest after a 10-day mourning period that coincided with the planned international rollout of this biopic. It's too bad Justin Chadwick's film doesn't offer a more substantial portrait of South Africa's great humanist and visionary.

Chadwick draws from Nelson Mandela's autobiography, but 95 years is a lot of life to cover. Much material about the anti-Apartheid movement, the African National Congress and Mandela's 27 years in prison is severely condensed. And Chadwick and screenwriter William Nicholson minimize the sacrifices made by Mandela's collaborators, opting instead for single-minded hero worship. Still, this film provides a starting point for deepening one's knowledge of Mandela and South Africa.

Opening with an idyllic tribal sequence in the sun-scorched village of Mandela's childhood, Mandela moves forward in an episodic fashion. We witness Mandela when he's a young lawyer in Johannesburg, as his first marriage fails, and during a period of radicalization. But these events aren't woven into the larger context of the political movement. The only exception is the depiction of his marriage to his second wife, Winnie. Their relationship is close at first, but it's damaged by his incarceration, and then hers. Winnie becomes a militant radical just as her husband embraces nonviolence.

What cannot be missed is Idris Elba's commanding portrayal. Though he bears little physical resemblance to Mandela, he captures the great man's essence through gestures and gait. Appearing in virtually every scene, this chameleonic actor is captivating to watch.

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