Pete Hammond

Not everything goes smoothly, even at as efficiently organized an event as the Toronto International Film Festival. After this afternoon’s 3 PM press screening for Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom had to be cancelled when the film went down 40 minutes in, all eyes were on the 6 PM premiere at Roy Thomson Hall hoping another calamity would not follow and jinx the movie. No problems there and the press screening was rescheduled for 10:15 PM Saturday night. Still that’s a drag for critics who would now just have to start over. This is why publicists chew their fingernails off.

Nevertheless, the actual premiere screening went off without a hitch and earned a nice standing ovation at the end of the two-and-a-half hour biopic of Nelson Mandela. The filmmakers literally flew into Toronto just yesterday saying they hadn’t even seen this cut yet. Boasting another two performances to add to the list of Oscar-contending portrayals this year – Idris Elba as Mandela and Naomie Harris as his wife Winnie – this beautifully shot and realized epic takes us into the world of Mandela from 1942 at the beginning of his activism all the way to his election as president after being released from his Robben Island prison cell after 27 years. It is those prison scenes where the film really comes alive and Elba gets a chance to shine. That he does, in a towering portrayal of the man who stays in the headlines lately because of his frail health (he just went home from the hospital this week).

Count both Elba and Harris, for her complex Winnie, as good shots for nominations along with many of the technical aspects of the stunning looking film. Whether it has a chance as Best Picture is another matter. This is easily the kind of lusciously made epic to which Oscar voters drifted to in past decades – think Gandhi - but that seems to be changing. Nevertheless if craft gets you in, Mandela with its great set pieces could make the race. It’s also intelligently written. Directed by English helmer Justin Chadwick, this film does not open old wounds but seeks to heal them. It’s fairly straightforward in its approach to telling Mandela’s story but, in his opening remarks, TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey said it is so much more. ”It’s tempting to call the story of Nelson Mandela larger than life, but it is life. It’s the story of a man given a life sentence, it’s the story of a life of struggle, it’s the story of a life lived in the service of a principle,” he said before introducing veteran producer Anant Singh, who has labored 16 years to bring this to the screen.

“It really is a very proud moment to bring to fruition the work of trying to get Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom to the big screen. I started my communications with Mr. Mandela while he was still in prison, so that’s almost 25 years ago,” he said explaining how he eventually won the movie rights to Mandela’s autobiography. The producer said Toronto is the perfect place to launch the film since he was in the city once before with Mandela when he spoke here. Elba was actually working in Toronto on Pacific Rim when he made the decision to do the film.

Director Chadwick made a point of thanking Harvey Weinstein and his team in making it all possible. “They have been passionate, committed and supportive of the film. And to see that energy and have a genuine love for the film is really extraordinary,” he said.

Hollywood doesn’t really make many films anymore of the scale and scope of this one so it will be interesting to see how it is embraced. In any event, it is filmmaking of the highest order and there should also be a special shout out to its musical score by Alex Heffes which really adds to the flavor. Opening in December during the Christmas holidays it will be interesting to see its commercial fate. Clint Eastwood‘s Mandela picture Invictus didn’t even crack $40M domestically and won Oscar nods only for its two main actors Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. A new film, Winnie Mandela, with Jennifer Hudson in the title role and Terrence Howard as Nelson, opened in the U.S. this weekend to little fanfare. It has been largely on the shelf for two years and played Canada for a week last fall before falling quickly off screens. Whether Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom can stir more interest is a question The Weinstein Company is anxiously waiting to have answered. But it is certainly a movie worth seeing and talking about.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.