It's not a requirement that an actor closely resemble the historical figure they're playing in a biopic, but the degree to which Idris Elba does not look like the late Nelson Mandela is a constant distraction in Justin Chadwick's Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. The picture follows Mandela from the 1940s through the 1990s, as he goes from reluctant anti-apartheid activist to imprisoned martyr to president of South Africa. Elba is a terrific actor, but the fact that he's so much taller and bulkier than the real Mandela (who was a not-inconsiderable 6-foot) is always a little jarring, especially when portraying Mandela in his 70s. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom does a good job of condensing several decades of history into 139 minutes, though the story ends a few too many times, and the character of Mandela's controversial wife Winnie (Naomie Harris) is reduced to a troublemaking cypher. Winnie's continued work during Mandela's decades in prison are largely swept under the rug, and her story was better told in the flawed but underrated Winnie Mandela, which looks like a TV movie compared to the epic, Oscar-baiting sweep of this film. But this is ultimately Mandela's story, making it all the more a pity that we never forget that we're watching Idris Elba.
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