Arriving with morbidly perfect timing, this by-the-numbers biopic about the recently deceased South African leader tries for Gandhi
greatness but fails to hit any sort of mark. Dutifully marching through a highlights reel of Nelson Mandela’s life—coming of age in the bush, practicing law in Johannesburg, helping establish the military wing of the African National Congress, enduring 27 years in prison—Justin Chadwick’s film isn’t savvy enough to investigate any of the more compelling narrative threads. Why did Mandela’s second wife, Winnie, grow increasingly radical even as her husband moved away from such tactics? How did political ideals butt up against pragmatic concerns during the negotiations for Mandela’s freedom? Instead, Chadwick cuts between stirring speeches and soft-focus flashbacks, with occasional context-free bursts of archival footage tossed in seemingly for the hell of it. Idris Elba, despite looking far too much like a linebacker to bear much of a physical resemblance to the real man, successfully adopts Mandela’s commanding presence and distinctive speech patterns, but he can’t save a film so hagiographic and uninspired.