Invictus: Film Review

“I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” An extract from English poet William Ernest Henry’s Invictus may seem like a strange way to introduce a rugby inspired film set in 1990s South Africa, but there’s nothing ordinary about the story of Nelson Mandela and his quest to unite the rainbow nation.

Henry’s poem comforted Mandela during his long years of incarceration at the hands of apartheid and provides much of the inspiration in this tale of sporting and political triumph. Set in post apartheid South Africa and based on a true story adapted from John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy, Invictus depicts newly elected President Mandela’s attempts to unite the still deeply race divided country.

The unlikely vehicle for change is the almost exclusively white South African rugby team, the Springboks. Seen by many as a symbol of white rule, the team are loathed by black South Africans and their performance has been badly affected by years in the anti-apartheid international wilderness; so much so that the name and colours of the team are about to be scrapped before the surprise intervention of Mandela.

With the rugby world cup being staged in his country, Mandela sees an opportunity to break the cycle of fear and mistrust between black and white South Africans by providing a common cause for them to rally behind. So he sets about inspiring the team through its captain, Francois Pienaar.

Morgan Freeman is impressive as Mandela, capturing his demeanour and physical attributes beautifully and successfully conveying his almost regal nature. The opening scenes, which intersperse shots of Freeman with archive footage of Mandela’s release from prison, highlight the physical similarities between the men however whilst he captures the thoughtful, deliberate pace and tone of Mandela’s voice, Freeman’s accent sways from South African to American too easily and often.

Matt Damon delivers a sturdy, understated performance as Pienaar who despite not being physically the biggest or the loudest in the dressing room inspires his team through leading by example.

Fans of sport movies know that re-creating realistic game scenes can be hard; rarely can the intensity and speed of professional athletes be successfully mimicked. Whilst some of the wider rugby game scenes show a lack of pace, the use of hand held, ground level cameras for close up shots makes you feel part of the chaotic action of the rucks and scrums. The sound in particular impresses with tackles crunching and kicks thumping, adding to the atmosphere created by the supporters’ cauldron of noise.

The wider story of simmering racial tension is played out well through Mandela’s new mixed race security team, who provide a snapshot of the country’s journey from fear and suspicion from their initial orders to work together, through to respect and shared joy at the climax of the World Cup. The guards provide regular injections of humour, particularly with their impromptu game of rugby in the president’s gardens.

Whilst the film relies on some symbolic and perhaps simplistic scenes it still manages to provoke emotion. The sight of a group of township boys surrounding the team’s one black player, Chester Williams, and chanting his name as the other players look on amused brings a smile, whilst the joy on the children’s faces as they play a game with the South African team is realistically uplifting.

The scene where the team visit Mandela’s cell at Robben Island evokes memories of Freeman’s career defining performance in The Shawshank Redemption, highlighting the stark reality of spending 27 years in a tiny cell. The strength of Mandela’s character and the inspiration from his willingness to forgive those who imprisoned him shine through.

After previously dealing with the themes of race (Gran Torino) and sporting underdogs (Million Dollar Baby), director Clint Eastwood combines the two successfully here.  Mandela’s story is so overwhelmingly large and inspiring that it feels impossible to try and fit it into one film, so the use of one particular event in his leadership works well. Some may find the ending a little corny but overall you’ll be inspired and entertained by this uplifting movie.


Director:                      Clint Eastwood

Writers:                        Anthony Peckham (screenplay) John Carlin (book)

Stars:                           Morgan Freeman, Clint Eastwood

Classification:              PG 13

Release Date:             5 February 2010

Company:                   Warner Bros

Run Time:                   134 minutes