FREE AT LAST Morgan Freeman stars as Nelson Mandela in 'Invictus'
The good, the bad and the rugby
A WEEK or so before ‘Invictus’ went on general release, a friend said he intended to see it in the cinema. No biggie there, you might say, except the last time this individual watched something on the big screen was 1999, when ‘American Beauty’ came out. To hear him express an interest was almost as a big a shock as the collapse of apartheid itself.
John Carlin, the man who wrote the book on which the film is based, described the story as something that distils the essence of Nelson Mandela’s genius. It’s centred around the 1995 Rugby World Cup, held in South Africa, which helped unite the country around a team which had been the preserve of its white minority.
Morgan Freeman has played God twice (in ‘Bruce Almighty’ and ‘Evan Almighty’), so it’s only a short step up to fill Mandela’s shoes. The latter’s humour, work ethic, indefatigable energy, political nous and eye on the bigger picture are well captured. There are also hints of family difficulties, but rather like Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett in ‘The West Wing’, the figure we see at the tiller of state is more saint than man.
Matt Damon takes on the role of Francois Pienaar. Despite giving away four inches to the South African rugby captain, Damon looks pretty good, and nails what Pienaar himself has called a ‘devilishly difficult’ accent. Both of the main players have been nominated for Academy Awards.
Directed by Clint Eastwood, ‘Invictus’ begins with a potted history of South Africa in the early 1990s, from Mandela’s release (which occurred 20 years ago last Thursday), through free elections and on to the new president’s first day on the job.
This is history in broad brush strokes – primary colours, if you’ll pardon the pun. At times, to borrow Seamus Mallon’s line about Sunningdale and the Good Friday Agreement, it feels like South Africa for slow learners, or rugby for the uninitiated. Stuff is spelled out very slowly at times. The match scenes aren’t brilliant – some of the kicking is a bit wobbly – but there are occasional echoes of ‘Raging Bull’ in the crunching tackles towards the end.
At times it’s cheesy, and there are clearly some fictional elements to the movie, though it has definitely enticed this viewer to read the source material. Mind you, it is worth reminding yourself that the core plot actually happened. And since the film has a PG certificate, it may be a way into a fascinating period for those with no memory of Mandela as president of South Africa (never mind as a prisoner on Robben Island).
Describing it as predictable may miss the point; it is based on real events, after all. I watched almost all of that Rugby World Cup 15 years ago, but a family holiday in France meant I missed the final. That game pitted the Springboks against the seemingly unbeatable All Blacks of New Zealand, who included the gigantic Jonah Lomu. I remember spending a fortune on an English newspaper for the match report, having spent hours trying to read the French sports daily L’Equipe with only a dictionary and two years of school French to help.
Those who feel the sight of strangers hugging during or after a sporting event is strange obviously weren’t in Croke Park in 2006 when Mayo beat the Dubs. However cynical you are, it’s hard not to leave the theatre without a smile on your face (or, for the more emotional, a tear in your eye). Hell, it would almost convince me to head to South Africa for this summer’s soccer World Cup. Damn Thierry Henry.
Rating 3.5 out of 5