Invictus

When asked which actor he would have portray him in a film of his life, Nelson Mandela didn’t hesitate to nominate Morgan Freeman, who, in turn, has been struggling for years to bring the former South African President to the silver screen. With Invictus, based on John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy, Freeman’s role of a lifetime has finally arrived, and he gives it his all. Although it occasionally feels like an amalgamation of his roles in The Shawshank Redemption and Deep Impact as a prisoner and president respectively, Freeman is by no means weak – on the contrary, his subsequent Oscar nod is well earned, with an admirably nuanced performance that skilfully captures the great man onscreen. As such, it’s a great shame to see Freeman so badly let down by a mawkishly sentimental and reductive slice of thinly concealed Oscar bait.

It starts promisingly enough: reconstructed news footage shows Mandela/Freeman being freed from prison and soon being elected as President, while his assistant (a convincing Adjoa Andoh) warns him of the urgent problems facing South Africa, including a crippled economy, poor healthcare and seething racial tensions. A more political filmmaker such as Oliver Stone may have leapt at the chance to draw out contemporary parallels with Obama, but instead the filmmakers chose a simpler and supposedly inoffensive route by concentrating on the 1995 South Africa Rugby World Cup. However, in doing so the film might manage to sidestep political controversy, but it is also resoundingly successful in offending the intelligence of its audience. Mandela effectively abandons all other presidential commitments in order to oversee victory for the Springboks – a team representative of apartheid – with the hope of easing the racial tensions threatening to engulf the country. Even without knowing the outcome of the World Cup, one can quite easily map out the film’s narrative trajectory – if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the film.

The execution of the film is not at fault here. Clint Eastwood has evolved into one of the most consistent and hardworking directors in Hollywood, and at 79 he shows no signs of slowing down. His direction here is confident and at times impressive, no more so than in the climactic Springbok/All Blacks showdown. Alongside this, Matt Damon provides quietly effective support as the Springbok captain, François Pienaar, as he neatly sidesteps the trap previously fallen into by Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond by producing a surprisingly convincing South African accent. Perhaps more importantly, Damon’s in fully-fledged beefcake mode here, bouncing back from his gut-heavy performance in Soderbergh’s The Informant! to show off a newly acquired rugby player physique. Unfortunately, his less impressive stature provides the film with some unintentional laughs, as, at 5’ 10’’, Damon is constantly dwarfed by his more authentic onscreen teammates.

However, despite the convincing performances and Eastwood’s sure-handed direction, the film’s painfully inept plot greatly overshadows the brief flashes of excellence. Within half an hour, its central message – rugby cures racism – is made clear, and the script then proceeds to crudely beat the audience over the head with this simplistic and sentimental mantra for a further hour and a half – most noticeable in the painful employment of a song entitled “Colourblind” prior to the climactic match. The moral complexities and sheer narrative subtlety that defined Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood’s previous collaborations (Million Dollar Baby and Unforgiven – still Eastwood’s unsurpassed masterpiece) are entirely absent here, replaced instead with a clumsy feel-good conclusion courtesy of Anthony Peckham’s otherwise unremarkable script. The film casually concludes that racism was ended in South Africa on 24 June 1995, and offers no hint of the country’s future political and racial difficulties, let alone any criticism of Mandela himself. The skill with which this film was made and the talent of those who made it only serve to make its shortcomings all the more noticeable and frustrating. The quality of Freeman’s performance is wasted on a poor script, while Eastwood has shown elsewhere that he is a far more able and intelligent director than Invictus would have you believe.

Originally published by Cherwell Online on 08/02/2010.

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