Adapted by South African writer Anthony Peckham from a book by journalist John Carlin, Invictus tells the story of how Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman, finally) conspired with Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to turn the 1995 Rugby World Cup final into a moment of national solidarity.

Invictus opens with a prologue taken from the day, five years previously, when Mandela was released from Robbin Island prison after 27 years in jail. Now elected president, and beset on all sides by racial, economic and diplomatic problems, Mandela is casting around for a symbol of the new South Africa. He finds it in Pienaar’s rugby team, long ostracised from international sport, which not only play host to the world’s players, but have a slim chance of winning. Mandela’s support for the Springboks is not without controversy. They are a predominantly white team, with just one black player. They wear the green and gold, the same colours as the flag of the apartheid South Africa, and they play rugby, the white sport of privilege.

Telling a vast national story in under two hours requires judicious editing but Eastwood’s narrative contractions and compressions are occasionally jarringly clumsy. Mandela’s estranged wife Winnie is never seen and is represented by a broken beaded bracelet, a symbol of their broken marriage. A series of flashbacks to Mandela’s time in prison, brought about by Pienaar and the team visiting the island, come across as overly poetic and corny. Eastwood also turns Mandela’s security team, made up of black ANC members and white former Special Branch officers, into a co-operative melting-pot emblematic of the new society. These sequences, although earnestly played, come off as trite and underdeveloped, shoehorned into the wider narrative in an effort to provide an emotional background.

There are times in the middle section of the film when the momentum slows down to a lumbering trot; lengthy re-stagings of key moments in the tournament mirrored by equally ponderous political machinations taking place backstage. Far too much time is devoted to bloodless recreations of tackles, tries and drop goals, cut between endless shots of the multi-cultural crowd waving rainbow flags.

Even if you don’t know the difference between a ruck and a maul, Eastwood’s film closely follows the set trajectory of the triumphal sports movie, even down to the final being settled on the last kick of the ball. Given such a predictable outcome, is Invictus a story worth telling? When Freeman is on screen, it is. Like the man he plays, Freeman exudes charisma and gravitas in equal measure. He has captured Mandela’s stiff stance and the awkward cadences of his speech perfectly, but to his enormous credit, the performance is more an inhabitation than an impersonation.


fifi said...

excellent review...

oliveobrien1978 said...

Great review. I have to say I liked Invictus. I do agree, it was a little schmaltzy, but I found it entertaining. Freeman's performance really saved the film, I almost forgot that he wasn't Mandela himself:) Thanks, Olive