Harry Guerin reviews the Idris Elba-starring biopic, which opens in cinemas on Friday January 3.
When it comes to blessings, Idris Elba has the air of a man who counts his every night. Rightly so. The majority of actors would be lucky to have one iconic screen role during their careers, but, at the age of 41, Elba already has three: Stringer Bell in The Wire, John Luther in Luther and now the great man in this conventional, but always compelling biopic. Elba is a lot wider and taller than Nelson Mandela, but in terms of heart and soul he's a perfect fit.
Based on the autobiography of the same name, Long Walk to Freedom begins in the 1940s with Mandela a young work-hard-play-hard lawyer. Not particularly political, his awakening comes following the murder of a friend in police custody. From there, director Justin Chadwick moves through the growth of the African National Congress (ANC), the end of Mandela's first marriage, his union with second wife Winnie (Naomie Harris), the Sharpville Massacre, the ANC's sabotage campaign, Mandela's arrest and sentencing to life in prison on Robben Island.
It's a breathless charge through events, many of which would be worthy of films in themselves - and we're not even halfway there. We still have to see: the emotional impact of Mandela's imprisonment; the growth in power and influence of the ANC; the Soweto Massacre; the move to Pollsmor Prison; controversies, fragile talks becoming endgame negotiations; the transfer to Victor Verster prison; Mandela's release on February 11 1990; the chaos and carnage which continued on the route to democracy and Inauguration Day.
That Chadwick has made such a cohesive film, which deftly combines the personal and the political with tension and tenderness, is no mean feat. And while you will wish that more screentime had been devoted to some elements, the inevitable miniseries that is to come will have its work cut out to do a better job than this chronicle.
The same applies to Elba's performance. Within five minutes you've forgotten about the physical dissimilarities; his voice and charisma are hypnotic and he even delivers his best work in the film as the elderly Mandela. Truly, the most fitting of tributes to the life story of our age.
There is more gratitude than sadness by the closing credits. It may be hard to imagine that anything could make you want to read the autobiography even more, but that is exactly what happens here.