Raymond Li 11 February 2010

Raymond Li finds this biopic-jock-underdog somewhat uplifting


Think Nelson Mandela and you envision a noble man, who endured years of apartheid without giving into hatred- a symbolic figure of equality. However, you would not often see his name in the same sentence as South African rugby but these are the two focal points for director Clint Eastwood in this Oscar-hungry biopic. Following last week’s Precious, this is another film of the underdog but a more uplifting and unusual one.

Invictus focuses on Mandela just after his election as President of South Africa and his attempts in improving race relations in a post-apartheid country. His election also marks the rapid decline of the rugby union team, the Springboks, who have become the much-loathed symbol of apartheid. Mandela decides to support the Springboks as a way of unifying the nation and builds an unlikely friendship with its captain, Francois Plenaar.

First of all, Morgan Freeman is phenomenal as Mandela. Biopics need an actor to carry the weight of the film and it’s one that the actor does effortlessly. Every move and posture is mastered and the difficult South African accent is perfected. Charisma flies off the screen and he dominates every scene. Great performances become outstanding when you lose sight of the actor and in this case, Freeman truly becomes Mandela. It’s almost worth paying the ticket to see his performance. Matt Damon himself was unusual in terms of casting as the real Plenaar is a good deal taller at 6″4 but he puts in a likeable, understated performance. He goes from a journey of an elitist rugby player, apathetic to apartheid to a more open individual who coaches black kids and rides the team to glory. Solid supporting perofances come from Adjoa Andoh as Mandela’s secretary Brenda, her loyalty crossed with graceful humour, and Tony Kgoroge as his chief of security Jason Tshabalala, who exudes fears over Mandela’s life.

Eastwood deserves a mention for his directing. He delves into subjects that are for once not personal to him- rugby being foreign territory. The opening of the film gives us a clear idea what to expect- privileged white boys play in a private rugby field, fenced off from the barren wasteland where black youths play football. However, some of the boys grow up to play rugby for the country and it’s quite heart warming to see the team sing the anthem of freedom. Plenaar is the main focus but one ends up rooting for the whole team rather than seeing them as a bunch of extras. The climactic World Cup final is well shot and choreographed to the extent that the “gentlemen’s sport played by hooligans” almost becomes a sequence of beautiful cinematography.

However, the film’s uplifting, triumphant ambience may be interpreted by some as cheesy. Certainly the screenplay shows signs of it. Matt Damon as Plenaar provides rather uninspiring team talks with phrases like “this is our destiny” It’s a phrase that’s more suited to a sci-fi fantasy battle than a rugby pitch. As a result of the feel good factor, the story is predictable and there isn’t much tension in the rugby matches themselves. In fact there’s more tension in Mandela’s personal bodyguard between his ANC comrades and white Special Forces specialists.

With the character of Mandela, one never gets beyond the messianic “great man” portrayal. His personal qualities of courage, forgiveness and tolerance are emphasised but references to his personal, private life are superficial. He claims his family are the 24 million South Africans but his wife is not seen and his daughter’s onscreen presence can only be described as a forgettable cameo. Any mention of his family puts Mandela into a shell, which Eastwood does not break into. Freeman tries to make hints at his own traumatic personal history but the screenplay does not offer him much room to do this. The only reason the film offers for his transformation into the “great man” is his reading of the poem, Invictus, by WE Henley.

One gets the impression that Eastwood is overstretching himself. He makes repeated references to the internal political divisions, which manifests into paranoia over assassinations against Mandela. It’s a movie about sports, racism, politics and class. Consequently, the film does not delve deeply into the sources of racial tension.

This film is in the running for best picture and whilst it’s worth watching, it never quite leaps off the screen. The film feels more like a tribute to Mandela and to Plenaar, a triumph against racism. That said, it’s one you will be glad to watch.

Raymond Li