Before I begin my review I ought to set out my politics on the subject matter first. I abhor apartheid and the racist regime that existed in South Africa’s recent history and unlike one former British Prime Minister I have an awful lot of time for Nelson Mandela, to me a man who did so much good for his country that he deserves a fitting tribute as his time on this planet draws to a close, does this film give that tribute?
The film begins in the early days, Mandela (played by Idris Elba) is seen becoming a man in his home village before we see him portrayed as a successful lawyer who is seen successfully winning a case of theft after the accuser takes offence to his questioning style (or simply because a black man is asking the questions?) Having gathered evidence that one of his friends was murdered by police, Mandela becomes disenfranchised when the Judge rejects his claims and this begins the process for him to work alongside others in the ANC.
At this time he meet his first wife Evelyn. Initially things look ideal but as Mandel’s revolutionary side takes over, in one scene he loses his temper physically on Evelyn as they argue as she begins to be aware of his adulterous behaviour. Eventually she leaves him. Not long after he meets Winnie (played brilliantly by Naomi Harris – fresh from her role as Moneypenny in Skyfall) it is clear they belong together and are very close.
Events turn on the day of the infamous Sharpeville massacre and Mandela and his ANC colleagues retaliate violence with violence, ultimately leading to his arrest, trial – where he attempted to gain martyrdom and imprisonment on Robben Island. The Robben Island years demonstrate a largely brutal, violent regime against him and his colleagues whilst out in the ‘free’ world, Winnie is persecuted and forced into solitary confinement for long periods leaving their children without both parents.
Events in South Africa through the years of his imprisonment are given news coverage reporting and this is mixed with scenes of brutality, friendship and utter sadness as the harsh realities of his time away from family take their toll on him. Even more so Winnie who become more radicalised by her treatment as the movie moves into the final quarter.
Eventually the Government begin to relent and the process of attempting to restore peace sees them soften in their approach to Mandela, first by moving him and his colleagues off the Island and then into getting Mandela to talk with Government officials as the leadership attempt to restore some sort of order. Initially Mandela is hostile but he sees an advantage in all this and uses it to further the cause of his people.
Eventually the time comes for Mandela to be released and begin the process of bringing a democracy to his country, not until after the violence throughout the country steps up a level, this is happening whilst his life long love for Winnie begins to drift further apart.
Idris Elba is quite brilliant as Mandela whilst he is hardly identical in look, he holds the gravitas and feel of the great man himself, from a young (dare I say it) almost Stringer Bell way through to the elderly statesman that the world has grown to love. As mentioned earlier Naomi Harris is also brilliant and there is real on screen chemistry between the 2 of them as they fall in love and eventually drift apart by their differing views.
The film itself is very good, though a little baggy in places and could have, in my view, been edited a little to reduce the 150 minute running time, having said that how do you wipe out any part of the life of one of the men who have shaped the world.
As it is based on his book there is no denying this is a very pro- Mandela movie, but it is not afraid to accept that he did perform acts of violence, all be it under an extremely brutal regime. It is not the greatest film you will ever see but it sure as hell makes you realise just how awful living in South Africa must have been.