‘Mandela’ a dutiful biopic, just not full-blooded storytelling

The problem with a film biography of someone like Nelson Mandela (was there anyone like Nelson Mandela?) is the self-imposed tip-toeing required in the Great Man school of movie-making. The triumphs will be included, stirring and admirable as they should be.

But nobody wants to be accused of hagiography, so dashes of salt will be carefully added — in this case, some less-than-saintly behavior by Mandela with his first wife, or his unabashed early-’60s turn to violent militancy in the face of the loathsomeness of South African apartheid.

That sort of balance comes to feel more like chart-making than full-blooded storytelling. Hemmed in by such worries, to say nothing of the trick of dramatizing the 27-year-period of its hero’s incarceration, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” is, sad to report, a routine movie.

We duly acknowledge the history lesson as valuable for future generations, and the intimations that Mandela contained both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. inside him are well observed.

The attempt to tell the whole long story puts a burden on leading man Idris Elba, the strong British actor lately seen in “Pacific Rim” but still best known for “The Wire.” Elba handles the task with aplomb, adjusting his performance from the cocky clotheshorse and fiery leader of youth to the calm visionary with the post-prison healing touch.

There’s also a whole movie to be made around Naomie Harris’s ferocious performance as Winnie Mandela, a very complicated person who bashes around during the film’s midsection. She keeps the movie from settling completely into middlebrow history-lesson territory, a troubling figure who can’t be easily sketched in a single sentence.

Mandela’s death at 95 on Dec. 5 brought an enormous, and appropriate, onslaught of media coverage. “Mandela” can’t help but seem like an extension of this, albeit dramatized and given length (139 minutes).

The life is dutifully told, but unless you’re going to set a wildly distinctive moviemaker loose on the material (director Justin Chadwick is strictly a journeyman), I still think the right approach to historical figures is not the lifespan model but the snapshot.

In that sense, Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” (2009) continues to look good, focused as it was on President Mandela’s incredibly shrewd manipulation of South Africa’s mania for its rugby team as a way to encourage national unity.

The suggestion of a wise humanitarian simultaneously co-existing inside a canny political operator is drawn more keenly through that incident than through the respectful panorama rendered here.

“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” 2 ½ stars

A respectful biography of Nelson Mandela, given a strong performance by Idris Elba. The history lesson is undeniably useful (and the movie takes care to show less-than-saintly behavior in Mandela’s life), but it’s tough to make this kind of safe biopic really come to full-blooded life, even with a subject as important as Mandela.

Rated: PG-13 for violence, subject matter.

Showing: Opens Christmas Day at various area theaters.

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