Director    Clint Eastwood
Starring    Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Tony Kgoroge, Julian Lewis Jones, Marguerite Wheatley, Patrick Lyster
Release    11 DEC (US) 5 FEB (UK)    Certificate 12A
3 stars


9th February 2010

Nelson Mandela is one of those inspirational political figures that makes for great fodder when it comes to Oscar-baiting season. Throw in a stirring account of underdogs rising to their sporting challenge and you have the perfect Academy Award film, right? Maybe, but there is such a thing as 'too much substance over style' and Invictus falls into this trap, ultimately suffering from its own importance.

During his first term as South African President, Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) is faced with a post-apartheid nation still divided by race. Celebrated by the blacks but hated by the whites, Mandela decides that the best way to unite his country is to get them rallying together in support of the national rugby team. Enlisting the help of team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), Mandela brings together the people of his country as they cheer on the Springboks in the 1995 Rugby World Cup Championship.

First, a caveat: I hate rugby. It's hard to discern the critically relevant elements of a film when 70% of it is made up of a sport which holds zero interest for you. In fact, if you absolutely love rugby, go ahead - add an extra star to the rating. I speculate, however, that this only applies to the hardcore rugby fans out there because when Invictus descends into 'match action' (as it does...frequently), it is just boiled down to scrum, try, tackle and conversion. A quick scoreboard glimpse reveals that Springboks are now winning 15-12. Erm...go team?

[gallery]These scenes are made more bearable, however, by the star presence of Matt Damon. Armed with an immaculate accent and impressive physique, Damon has clearly put in a lot of preparation for the role; throwing himself into the rugby action with as much gusto as is present in his stirring team speeches. It's just a shame that his place in this film is reduced to just this rousing camaraderie and moments of quiet admiration for the South African president.

But then this is less Pienaar's story than Mandela's. Morgan Freeman puts more effort into the role than seen in most of his other recent films, perhaps because of his close friendship with the man (he was also Nelson Mandela's personal choice for the role, although, to be fair, who else was he going to pick? Will Ferrell?). It's unfortunate then that, while Freeman captures a particular pacifying charisma for the part, sometimes the accent slips and he falls back into comfortable Morgan mode.

Of course, Freeman has it relatively easy in the film anyway seeing as Mandela is calm and controlled throughout the entire movie. The real drama comes from scenes highlighting the racial tension present in South Africa at this time. While director Clint Eastwood handles this theme well, it is unfortunate that the movie pretends to be all-encompassing in its portrayal of such discrimination, to the extent that, as colours unite to cheer their team, we are left with the impression that all is fine now and there must be no racism left anywhere in South Africa. Well done, rugby - you have single-handedly brought harmony to this country.

While direction and cinematography for the film are spot on, you can't help but expect more from such an awards-ripe product. After building a successful second career directing inspirational stories, as well as previously covering the sporting underdog motif with Million Dollar Baby, this film should be a walk in the park for Clint Eastwood. Instead, it's an arduous trek along a straight road - no twists or turns, no peaks or troughs, just a story plodding along to its inevitable conclusion. As good as the film may be, this makes it quite laborious viewing.

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