The major critics don’t think much of this biopic, complaining that it is dull, unoriginal and uninspiring. It has become clear to me that those major critics and I do not watch films based on true events in the same way (think Hitchcock and Saving Mr. Banks as other examples). The critics seem to think that any film based on true events should be an insightful expose, something that provides a fresh perspective on the events it depicts or at least is 100% accurate/honest in telling its story. Often if a film is completely honest, it’s called boring, and if it’s entertaining, it’s called dishonest (a little bit of a catch-22). Accuracy and fresh insight are things I look for in a documentary, but not necessarily in a feature film, so I refuse to condemn a film for missing these marks. What I want is a film that grabs me and offers me something to think about. I do find some biopics (like 42) to be by-the-numbers and boring, as Mandela is accused of being. And yes, Mandela makes some mistakes and could have offered much more than it did. But Mandela is an important well-made film which deserves better reviews than it has received (IMHO).
We watched Mandela in a theatre with about thirty other people. My typical experience with film-watching is that most people leave as soon as the credits start to roll. Halfway through the credits, I (or we) am (are) usually the only person(s) in the theatre. At the end of Mandela, not one person in the theatre so much as moved until all the credits were finished (no, they were not sleeping), and Mandela is a long film. This might tell us something about the kinds of people who watch films like Mandela. But I believe it must also be a sign that the film moved the viewers in such a way that they felt the need to pause and meditate on what they had just seen. 42 would never have achieved such a reaction.
Mandela does tell the story of Nelson Mandela in a straightforward linear way. It’s not trying to shock or mystify or dig very deeply into the minds and hearts of its characters. I might have appreciated it more had it done so. But it is also very far from a made-for-TV biopic. The acting is solid throughout and Idris Elba (as Mandela) is outstanding. The cinematography is appropriate for this kind of film and has its own distinct and powerful style. The music is excellent, swelling at only a few vital scenes. And while the speeches may not be as inspiring as they could be, this is partly the result of an obvious attempt to create an unsentimental film, no small feat in a story such as this.
Justin Chadwick’s film is based on Mandela’s autobiography so it may suffer uniquely for that. And it may be guilty of occasionally exoticizing the people of South Africa (as a friend noted). But, as I said, it is an important well-made film and I think it deserves ***+. My mug is up.