A 'Long Walk' worth taking

Katniss Everdeen is not the only person catching fire this fall. She's matched flame for flame by Nelson Mandela and his wife, Winnie, who burn with formidable fury in the sturdy biopic "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom."

As the Mandelas, British actors Idris Elba and Naomie Harris elevate our involvement in this authorized film version of Nelson Mandela's autobiography. That, and the astonishing course of Mandela's life.

Although this is a story we've heard so often we perhaps take it for granted, seeing all the events of this remarkable journey laid out in a two-hour and 21-minute feature underlines its not-to-be-believed qualities. It's not just the trajectory that took Mandela from 27 years in prison — most of them in a tiny cell on an isolated island he was never expected to leave alive — to the presidency of South Africa and becoming one of the most respected statesmen in the world that make this story so dramatic. It's the remarkable psychological journey that went along with it.

As detailed in William Nicholson's solid screenplay, Mandela changed several times over. He went first from being concerned only with being a successful lawyer to the leader of an ambitious political party. Then, he embraced violence as necessary to achieving political aims before renouncing violence and making it stick. That is a long walk indeed.

Making this passage even more intriguing is that it was made at great personal cost, especially in terms of marriage and family. Nelson and Winnie went from ecstatic soul mates to really not speaking the same language. One of the most poignant lines in Nicholson's script has Mandela saying, referring to the actions of the country's apartheid government against him, "What they did to her was their only victory."

Directed by Britain's Justin Chadwick, who had extensive TV experience before his breakout features "The Other Boleyn Girl" and "The First Grader" (also starring Harris), "Mandela" falls into the illustrated-history style of filmmaking. That means a good-looking film with detailed re-creations, including vintage township locations and significant incidents, such as 1960's Sharpeville Massacre. It also means the film's tone is inevitably celebratory. Given the trajectory of this man's story, how could it be otherwise?

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some intense sequences of violence and disturbing images, sexual content and brief strong language)

Running time: 2:21

Opens: Wednesday

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