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Invictus
Genre Drama
Year: 2009
 
Review:

Invictus is a film that attempts to capture the Zeitgeist of the New South Africa in its infancy. It's based on the book, Playing the Enemy by John Carlin and stars Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, with Clint Eastwood behind the camera. Eastwood has delivered some beauties in his time... from tough guy spaghetti Western performances to directing stirring war epics like Letters from Iwo Jima to movies about an exciting time in South African history.

Having worked on Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby with Morgan Freeman, it was time for the two to show them how it's done again with Freeman primed for the role he was born to play, Nelson Mandela. Apart from their physical similarities, the two men have a similar enigmatic grace whether delivering powerful speeches to the nation or harnessing the power of film.

The role of Nelson Mandela could only really be played by Freeman and comparing his performance in Invictus with any other portrayal of Madiba is almost irreverent. Invictus seemed like the perfect film for Freeman to launch into the larger-than-life character of Mandela, whose coming-of-age story is nothing short of miraculous. Even his name 'Freeman' matches the part... it all just seemed too perfect. Perfect it is not... but excellent it is. Freeman has studied the great man's mannerisms, speech patterns and general disposition. While you can still hear a little bit of Morgan in his Madiba voice, the actor and character are one as Freeman embodies the spirit of the living legend.

The spirit is what the film encapsulates... starting with a symbolic picture of the old South Africa as children of split heritages play sports associated with their social identities on two very different playing fields as a procession of cars cuts down the middle. Eastwood quickly establishes the political climate in South Africa from Mandela's release to his election to President. The uncertainty of the time, the tension in the air and the need for a calming influence show a brand new South Africa on the cusp of a new era, ready to swing either way.

Invictus is difficult to categorise: biography, drama, history, sport... it's got it all! Mandela's character is the glue that pulls it all together as the audience is introduced to him and aligned with his vision for his new country. The conflicting themes of white vs. black, old regime vs. new order, grace vs. revenge... all contribute to a fertile drama mimicking the competitive nature of rugby as a sport. Damon is introduced as Pienaar, whose leadership ability and confidence grow as a result of the patriotic duty placed on him by the respectable, solemn and charitable Madiba.

The film pivots itself on two things... Mandela's first few years at the helm of an uncertain, unstable country and the game that changed everything. Sure, you've got the political objectives between Pienaar and Mandela behind-the-scenes, but these meetings only really serve as a connector between Mandela as a new President and a proud South Africa uniting under the common denominator, rooting their group identity in sport.

Everything in-between the two pivots is not simply filler, but is more concerned with conveying the story to an international audience, who may have little or no clue about Mandela's legacy or the game of rugby. Eastwood captures the essence of South Africa with on-scene shooting, a largely South African cast and a wonderful understanding of the culture, giving Invictus a distinct South African flavour and instant authenticity.

Eastwood's direction and Freeman's performance are really what hold this film together. It's an inspiring story, but it's definitely not the first book you would consider adapting, given the scope and range of personalities involved. In this light, the production is a success... a nostalgic experience for South Africans and an eye-opening inspiration for other countries with a desire for unification. Matt Damon's supporting performance is equally important and he captures the accent and even looks South African, but is out-muscled by a powerhouse performance by Freeman and South Africa as his co-star.

Invictus is beautifully composed, but does feel stilted at times... as the story stop-starts its way along until it reaches the grand finale at Ellis Park. Rugby is a vehicle for transition and while Eastwood takes his time in giving audiences a taste of the sporting action, it's a secondary objective. Apart from the principle players, Mehrtens, Stransky, Small and Williams, the players are loosely recognisable.

Invictus is reminiscent of Hansie, as a well-known South African figure/story is put under the spotlight within the sports arena. The films are incomparable when it comes to scope, budget and cast, but some interesting parallels can be drawn between the characters of Pienaar and Cronje. Both white, Afrikaans, natural born leaders, South Africans, captains, ambassadors and men.

It's a must-see for South Africans, who will be expecting great things from Invictus and hoping for yet another taste of World Cup euphoria as reigning world champions in the build-up to 2010. Invictus is far from perfect and the flaws are easier to spot for South Africans, but all's forgiven as we're given a chance to relive a spectacular and defining moment in South Africa's history again and again.

The bottom line: Triumphant.

 

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