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Film: Invictus * *

Clint Eastwood’s telling of how a divided South Africa was united by a Rugby World Cup victory lacks sufficient drama, says George Byrne

It's long been an ambition of Morgan Freeman to portray former South African president Nelson Mandela on screen, but, after watching this strange and rather dull movie from Clint Eastwood, one suspects that in future the actor will be more careful what he wishes for. One would have imagined that Freeman's almost saintly serenity would have been more usefully brought to bear on the story of Mandela's incarceration in Robben Island prison, as outlined in his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom, but perhaps the producers reckoned that Freeman in a cell for most of a movie would be a tad too 'Shawshank: the Apartheid Years', so instead we've got an adaptation of John Carlin's book Playing the Enemy, an account of how Mandela used South Africa's hosting of the 1995 Rugby World Cup to try to bring a divided nation closer together.

Even for a director as accomplished as Eastwood this is a tough ask, given that movies based around sports tend not to have guaranteed audience appeal and to expect American cinemagoers to turn up for a movie about a sport with very little penetration in their country is raising the stakes even higher.

From the off, things are explained simply and in VERY BIG LETTERS, as Mandela is released in 1990 and the camera pans from healthy, privileged young Afrikaaners playing rugby on immaculately manicured pitches across to the Mandela motorcade and then to a dirty piece of waste ground on the other side of the road where blacks in ragged clothes are playing football. It's an effective-enough shot in its own right but indicative of how the film then continues to spell everything out in the broadest of strokes.

Barely ten minutes into the movie we get the first of many, many inspirational speeches from Freeman, as Mandela tries to get his Rainbow Nation off to a good start by using the same white Special Branch protection unit that was used by his predecessor FW de Klerk, causing resentment among his own security people in the process. Thereafter the tension between the respective security teams is used as a clumsy narrative device to explain the differences between the black and white communities, but given the situation in a country undergoing such seismic social change, Invictus lacks any decent dramatic conflict or tension.

Freeman is fine as Mandela and Matt Damon does his best with an underwritten role as South Africa's captain François Pienaar, but the story is very much a flatline job from the first act as the Springboks go from being barely ranked outsiders to actually winning the World Cup.

There's not much to see here which couldn't have been provided by any competent director making a TV movie, with Eastwood relying on hoary old clichés -- slow-motion footage of a ball flying through the air as a stopwatch ticks down, cutaways to people of all colours watching rapt in bars and, worst of all, a young black boy listening surreptitiously to the final beside a police car and being hoisted high in the air by officers at the final whistle, whereas previously they'd have probably bounced him off the ground -- and failing to bring any real sense of drama to the story.

A nice try but no result.

grg.byrne@gmail.com


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