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Winnie Mandela
Genre Biography

Winnie Mandela's life is chronicled in Winnie Mandela, taking us from her childhood through her education, her marriage to Nelson Mandela and the years following her husband's incarceration.

Director Darryl Roodt (Yesterday) has delivered a fleeting biopic drama that is sympathetic towards Winnie, portraying her as a disappointment to her father and ultimately a victim of her circumstances. We watch her life unfold from a distance like a highlights reel, tackling some of her bigger moments with a few intimate scenes in-between.

The main draw card is Winnie's remarkable true story as the ostracized first lady and torch bearer to a political and cultural icon. Nelson Mandela's passing and ensuing memorial sparked renewed interest in the relationship, which was also represented in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

Both biopics cover a sprawling life story and have opted for an emotional rather than historically accurate journey. While the focus on Nelson and Winnie's relationship brings the two name actors in Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard into clear view, there's a fair amount of distancing.

Perhaps the stone-skipping doesn't allow us to settle in any one chapter of Winnie's life long enough to truly engage with the character. The story has literally been handled with gloves. It's a safe retelling opting for brutality to wedding cake and unintentional laughs in what could have been an edgy prison sitcom to relay her TV-friendly life story.

Jennifer Hudson's performance is willful and determined, but somewhat demure in contrast to her stick-fighting younger self. She's a tomboy forced to adhere to societal etiquette and the real story at play is her breaking out of this mold. We aren't privy to inner world, with most of her story offset against what Nelson was doing at the time.

Terrence Howard is a good actor and looks more facially congruent with Mandela than Idris Elba did in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. However, you feel sympathy for his loving take on Mandela, which while worthy in a charming way, is unlike Elba's commanding presence and physical stature. He handles the accent well and is always cognizant that this is Winnie Mandela, giving Hudson the spotlight.

Elias Koteas has great presence as De Vries, an Apartheid anti-terrorism leader through the years. He almost single-handedly holds the Apartheid fort, making some of Winnie's rebellion seem to be aimed against one man instead of a system of oppression. He doggedly pursues her with his agents, finding his stranglehold slipping as the struggle intensifies and Winnie gains leverage.

Wendy Crewson plays Mary Botha, a recurring character and supporter of Winnie, who could have explained the "safe" take on Winnie's biographical drama if told from her perspective. A slew of recognisable South African actors play key supporting roles, some of which warranted more screen time, including South African stalwart Deon Lotz as F.W. de Klerk and the delightful Angelique Pretorius as Winnie's University friend, Marcia.

Winnie Mandela is a competent biopic with a strong collective of film-making talent. Unfortunately, the story's slant and distancing doesn't make for an engaging drama, forcing us to lean back on the film's production values, period costumes, historical significance and acting calibre. It's interesting as a biographical construct, filling in some gaps, but inconsistent and not wholly satisfying as a body of entertainment.

The bottom line: Aloof

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