Starring Jennifer Hudson, Terrence Howard. Written by Darrell Roodt, Andre Pieterse. 14A. 107 min. Opens Oct. 5.
Suggesting little more than a diagram of a biopic, Winnie keeps hitting its marks with two left feet. Nothing in this account of the life and times of Nelson Mandela’s socially crusading second wife feels the least bit spontaneous, which has less to do with the fact that we know her story than the way that co-writer/director Darrell Roodt leans on clichés and conventions. The film keeps insisting that Winnie Mandela was a staunch non-conformist, but cinematically speaking, it does so in a way that’s entirely conventional.
After an unconvincing prologue where the young Winnie is solemnly ordained for greatness by her rural-schoolteacher father, the scene shifts to apartheid-era Johannesburg. Played by an Oscar-trolling Jennifer Hudson, Winnie is not just a budding activist, but she’s more sensible than her giggly clotheshorse friends to boot. The arrival of Nelson Mandela (Terrence Howard) is staged as a kind of rom-com meet-cute—he drives by Winnie while she’s waiting for the bus and offers her a lift—and unfortunately, the film acts as if the woes that subsequently befall the couple (rapidly condensed and simplified from the historical record) are equal to the political turmoil of an entire country.
Hudson’s would-be bravura performance clarifies the true intent of the film, which is as a star showcase instead of a true representation of South Africa’s internecine conflicts. Racism becomes personified by Elias Koteas’ de Vries, a demented silent movie–style villain who lacks only a moustache to twirl. As mediocre as Winnie is in its efforts to enshrine its heroine’s grace in the face of abuse and incarceration, it’s even worse it tries to dramatize the unsavoury events of the late 1980s, when Mandela was accused of ordering the killing of a teenager. The last thing it needs at that point is a soaring, ironed-lung anthem sung over the end credits—but wouldn’t you know it, Hudson contributes one anyway.