Film review: Invictus

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INVICTUS, Clint Eastwood's latest directorial outing, is not a particularly deep or sophisticated movie. It may deal with a weighty subject matter – Nelson Mandela's controversial attempt to use the 1995 Rugby World Cup as a means of uniting a bitterly divided post-apartheid South Africa – but Eastwood's treatment of it has the bluntness and simplicity of a high-school history primer. Leaving no room for subtlety, the script is full of reductive platitudes, the camera work lingers on easy-to-grasp symbols of division and conciliation, and characters that threaten to complicate the narrative with the vicissitudes of real life (stand up Winnie Mandela) are kept off screen or relegated quietly to the background.

With a running time of two hours and 15 minutes, that leaves an awful lot of time for stating the obvious and Eastwood makes use of much of it to do just that: running through the basics of apartheid, of Mandela's struggle, of the rules of rugby, and even how the draw for the World Cup works. It's roadmap filmmaking of the worst kind, with every dramatic beat signposted with a clunky piece of dialogue or, worse, underscored by a baby-brained song like the one entitled – I kid you not – Colour Blind, that plays while Mandela is visiting the national squad ahead of their first big match.

Making matters worse are the laughable attempts to introduce a thriller element to the story. Early in the film, we follow Mandela as he takes his daily pre-dawn walk through the streets of Johannesburg. As he chats with his personal bodyguards, Eastwood repeatedly cuts to a van screeching through the back alleys. Ratcheting up the insistent score as it draws ever closer to Mandela, this vehicle has a sinister aura. Clearly Eastwood believes we're expecting a gunman to emerge from the van's side door, but when the two scenes converge he reveals to the surprise of no-one that it's actually a plain old delivery van dispatching that morning's newspapers. It's a trick he pulls again and again (watch out for the Boeing 747!), setting us up for assassination attempts on Mandela's life without setting up a credible threat. Yes, yes, it's Eastwood's way of signalling the ever-present danger facing Mandela as the new president of a scarred and divided nation, but they're cheap shots, the kind of things you'd expect to see in a bad B-movie not a prestigious production such as this.

Thank Heaven, then, for Morgan Freeman. Having already played God, Hollywood's go-to-guy for dignified gravitas gets the role of his late-blossoming career as Mandela and he melts right into him. From the opening scene recreating Mandela's historic release from incarceration after 27 years, he makes us forget we're watching an actor. It's not a big, bombastic showy performance either, but one built up of tiny gestures that allow his charisma to shine through. Like Mandela, he has an innate ability to appear like a giant one minute, and a humble dormouse the next, inspiring genuine reverence while also remaining human and approachable. Even better, he brings a lightness to the role. Freeman (who picked up an Oscar nomination earlier this week) has the confidence to have some fun with Mandela, bringing out his sly sense of humour.

It's something that has a knock-on effect on the film. Despite Eastwood's clunkiness and the story's potential for brow-beating worthiness, Invictus is surprisingly engaging in a way that's actually entertaining. Freeman makes it easy to get swept up in Mandela's politically risky strategy of trying get the whole country rooting for the Springboks during the World Cup. He shows how Mandela approaches the task with enthusiasm not a sombre sense of duty, and how he shrewdly understands that, with the eyes of the world upon the host nation, there's a strong symbolic value in presenting a unified front, even if means backing a team that has long been associated with apartheid.

As the Springboks' captain, Francois Pienaar, Matt Damon nicely compliments Freeman in this task as the politically neutral figure recruited by Mandela to inspire the team to win – and thus inspire the country to support them. Managing to overcome a shock of bleach blond hair and a tricky accent, Damon (also Oscar nominated) deftly sidesteps some of the hoarier moments Eastwood throws in his path with a subdued performance that counters the increasingly sentimental tone.

He's best on the rugby pitch, though, as is Eastwood, who captures the bone crunching vitality of the game with a muscular, stripped-down force the rest of the film might have benefited from. The final 20 minutes are devoted almost entirely to watching the 1995 World Cup Final nail-biter against the All Blacks and regardless of whether or not you know the outcome, it's thrilling to see it recreated here, even if the actor brought in to play legendary New Zealand man mountain Jonah Lomu (Zak Feaunati) isn't nearly imposing enough (Freeman towers over him).

In the end, then, Invictus does leave you feeling oddly satisfied, but it's a very fleeting satisfaction, perhaps because its rainbow nation conclusion immediately starts to ring hollow once the euphoria of the triumphant sports movie ending subsides. Thanks to Freeman, though, the title, which is Latin for "unconquered" and is taken from a short poem by William Ernest Henley that Mandela drew strength from while incarcerated, resonates nicely. It takes more than Eastwood's ham-fisted direction to keep a good actor down.

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