This is a film that is difficult to judge simply in cinematic terms since the subject is such a titanic figure in recent history, many older viewers (such as me) will have lived through most of the events depicted, and Nelson Mandela himself - the prisoner who became a president - unknowingly heightened the interest around his life by dying just weeks before the film was released. Yet, allowing for all of this, by any standards "Mandela" is a success, telling a powerful story in a honest and immensely moving manner with some outstanding acting. If it is somewhat reverential, this was to be expected, given the subject and the timing.
Unfashionably for recent bio-pics, "Mandela" chooses not to concentrate on a seminal incident in the subject's life but to paint on a huge canvas, covering many decades and lots of political events in a linear narrative that frequently deploys news clips from the time. It is based on Mandela's long 1995 biography of the same name which I bought on a visit to Robben Island and read with great admiration. British William Nicholson ("Gladiator") has done a skillful job of turning such a huge story into a manageable script and British director Justin Chadwick ("The Other Boleyn Girl") handles a complex of ingredients with genuine talent. It looks good with attention to period clothing and artifacts and use of actual sites and some breathtaking countryside (it was shot entirely on location in South Africa).
Ultimately, however, the success of such an ambitious work rests especially on the lead actors and the casting here was inspired. Idris Elba as the eponymous hero gives a towering performance, while Naomie Harris is a revelation as the more complex and less sympathetic character of his second wife Winnie. It helps that both are not major stars - although that is now set to change - and notable that both are British actors who affect convincing accents.
This is a balanced portrayal of multi-layered characters. Mandela is represented with great respect but he is not offered to us as a saint. He treats his first wife unkindly and his support for violence is not disguised. The film really impresses with its representation of Winnie, a woman who suffered so much, hated so much, and herself caused so much injustice. Mandela is now dead but his great project - the creation of a peaceful and prosperous multiracial nation - is still a work in progress.