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Originally published Tuesday, December 24, 2013 at 3:05 PM

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‘Mandela’: a life too large for the big screen

Nelson Mandela’s long, heroic life proves too big for the makers of “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” The movie gets 2.5 stars from Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald.

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Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review 2.5 stars

‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,’ with Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Jamie Bartlett, Lindiwi Matshikiza, Deon Lotz. Directed by Justin Chadwick, from a screenplay by William Nicholson. 141 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and disturbing images, sexual content and brief strong language. Several theaters.

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Coming to theaters at a sadly appropriate time, Justin Chadwick’s “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” covers much of the long life of the revered statesman and leader Nelson Mandela. Written by William Nicholson (“Gladiator,” “Les Misérables”) and based on Mandela’s 1995 autobiography, it’s a wildly ambitious film, beginning with Mandela as a young lawyer in early 1940s Johannesburg, continuing through his years of growing activism, his 27 years in prison, his political rise in the 1990s to president of South Africa — and, through many of these years, his tempestuous but deep-rooted marriage to Winnie Madikizela.

But it’s all perhaps too much richness for two hours and 20 minutes; you keep wishing, as “Mandela” plays out, that this were more than one movie. “Mandela” is one of those noble, thoughtful films that nonetheless doesn’t quite work, and the only real reason is that it tries to do too much, and ends up giving short shrift. It unfolds as a series of moments, some of which are beautifully rendered (though Alex Heffes’ score feels disappointingly predictable), but they’re dots on a canvas, not quite filling in a potentially lush picture.

That said, there’s much that’s right about this film, starting with the casting. Idris Elba, in the title role, movingly uses his rumbling voice to create a man, not a saint. And Naomie Harris, she of the enchantingly impish grin, creates something unshakable of Winnie, who herself becomes an activist. (“Where are my children?” she screams to her jailers at one point mid-movie; you feel as if mountains could fall.) An emotional highlight of the film is their reunion, near the end of his imprisonment, when they touch for the first time in more than two decades. They slowly embrace, like they’re drinking each other in, and Chadwick lets the moment take its time.

By the end of “Mandela,” as decades have whooshed past, we still don’t quite know this man — but we’re left wanting more. His own words, which live forever, movingly close the film. “My country was not made to be a land of hatred. People learn to hate. They can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart.”

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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