The story of the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa is the stuff of fairytales, both from a historical and social context. Barely a year after Nelson Mandela’s presidential election had signalled the official end of apartheid, all eyes were on this embryonic new nation, still institutionally divided, competing with a group of players still largely excluded from international sport.
Not only that, but the Springboks (the SFRU National Team’s common-use name) were a symbol of the Afrikaans and white oppression in general in the eyes of South Africa’s black population. The situation was so dire that is was generally accepted that the black population would cheer for anyone other that the ‘Boks. Kind of like the Scottish attitude towards the English football team, then.
The logistical problems of such a tumultuous country hosting a major international tournament aside, the fact that the nation was able to put aside its still very raw, differences and unite behind a single purpose was testament to the foresight and wisdom of Nelson Mandela.
Staring Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, the Springbok’s captain, and directed by the evergreen Clint Eastwood, Invictus is a production of outstanding technical quality. Old school filmmaking at its very best: an inspiring true-life story, driven by character and emotional relationships.
Freeman is clearly revelling in playing Mandela, a globally iconic figure, nailing his mannerisms and meter, capturing both the stately dignity and deep humility that Mandela exudes, while Damon ably supports Freeman with a low-key, but masterfully subtle performance as Pienaar, a man that overcomes his racist upbringing to embrace Mandela’s message of strength through unity and ideals for a ‘rainbow nation’.
Neither of these performances are showy, and it’s a testament to the mastery Eastwood commands over his art that he was able to convince his actors to play these roles down. The temptation for Freeman, in particular, to go into a barnstorming ‘please-give-me-an-Oscar’ mode must have been great. But Mandela, who was 75 when he came to power, was not that sort of politician. 27 years in prison had mellowed the firebrand tenacity he displayed in his youth.
However, Invictus also has more than its fair share of problems, both on and off the field of play. First and foremost is the rugby, a sport that doesn’t enjoy massive popularity in the US. And despite his best efforts to capture the gladiatorial battles of scrums, rucks and mauls, Eastwood’s innate non-comprehension of the game’s rules and dynamics are exposed. Case in point: in one scrummage shot, filmed from below, you see the ball passed out to the scrum half and not in by him…d’oh! This leads him to rely on gimmicks, like thunderous sound effects and a mass overuse of slow motion, which seem out of place in an otherwise very traditionalist film.
Another problem is the lack of any real antagonist, which, while laudable for its historical accuracy and determination towards realism, does mean that Invictus never really builds any climatic tension.
Why bother, you ask, when anyone with half a mind can Google ‘Rugby World Cup 1995′ and find out how the story ends? Well, that’s hardly the point. Everyone knew the Titanic was going to sink; it was the journey that mattered. Not that I’m trying to compare Invictus to Titanic (that would be silly), but a little bit more drama along the way wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Also, after driving the narrative for nearly two hours, the way Mandela just has to sit down and watch the final match unfold is a little passive. And the fact they didn’t include Pienaar playing the whole of extra time carrying an injury (something that really happened) smacks of opportunities lost.
These are gripes, and don’t detract from the film’s message of struggle and courage, a sentiment best summed up by quoting directly from William Ernest Henley’s poem, Invictus, from where the film takes its title:
It matters not how strait the gate,How charged with punishments the scroll,I am the master of my own fate:I am the captain of my soul.
The overall quality the film displays is hard to deny. But Invictus‘ faults drag it down from greatness to merely being very good. Morgan Freeman may well pick up a first, and long-overdue, Best Actor Oscar for his stately performance as Mandela (to add to his Best Supporting Actor gong) – the Academy love honouring careers and big public figures – but I can’t see Invictus challenging for either Best Film or Director (my money’s on Avatar or Precious, respectively).
Still, a very enjoyable film that proves, even though he’s approaching 80, Clint shows no signs of throwing in the towel just yet.
Invictus opens in UK cinemas February 5.