By Ed Cropley
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - 'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom' won rave reviews from South Africans who flocked to its opening night but critics were unimpressed, with one describing the latest biopic about the anti-apartheid leader as overly reverential ANC propaganda.
With South Africa's first black president now 95 and in poor health, cinema-goers were in emotional mood at Thursday's first airing of the 150-minute epic, which stars British actors Idris Elba as Mandela and Naomie Harris as his wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
"It was an extremely warm, emotional experience for me," said 42-year-old Seedat Tahera, praising the authentic feel of the movie, filmed partly in Soweto, the sprawling Johannesburg township at the heart of the struggle against white rule.
"I grew up in the streets of Alexandra township and for me every step that Mr Mandela took, it was as if I was taking that step again. It brought me great calmness and peace. I feel very loved and fortunate to be a South African."
Mandela, who became president in 1994 but stepped down after one term in office, gave independent South African producer Anant Singh the film rights to his 'Long Walk to Freedom' autobiography more than 15 years ago.
Much of the difficulty in bringing the book to the big screen was condensing a story stretching over six decades, including 27 years in prison, into a two-hour film script.
Singh and British director Justin Chadwick chose to focus on Mandela's fight against apartheid and the toll it took on his family. They also tried to show the good and the bad, including the embrace of violence that led to his life prison sentence.
But critics said it failed to do this and had instead become another cog in the myth-making machine that the African National Congress (ANC) and others have created around Mandela.
"By failing to deal in any significant way with Mandela's politics and refusing to spend any time examining what it was about him that propelled him into such a visible role in the liberation movement, the film does itself an insurmountable disservice," wrote reviewer Tymon Smith.
"The film simply reinforces the hagiographic propaganda of the ANC," he said in South Africa's Times newspaper.
The Sowetan newspaper praised the powerful acting in the film, but said it came across as a series of sketches.
"Fitting such a long and eventful life story into a two-hour movie was always going to be a mammoth task," the paper said.
Mandela's family and the ANC, the 101-year-old former liberation movement that has run South Africa since the end of apartheid, have applauded the movie.
It is not known whether Mandela himself, who is reported to have tubes down his throat to drain fluid on his lungs, has seen it, or is even well enough to see it. Even if he did, the attention foisted on him may well have made him uncomfortable.
In the first chapter of a planned sequel to 'Long Walk to Freedom' written in 1998, Mandela described his awkwardness at being put on a pedestal by his countrymen and millions more around the globe.
"One issue that deeply worried me in prison was the false image that I unwittingly projected to the outside world; of being regarded as a saint," he wrote.
"I never was one, even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying."
(Additional reporting by Shafiek Tassiem; Editing by Gareth Jones)