Morgan Freeman, the actor who plays Nelson Mandela in the recently released Invictus, is a talented man. I’d happily watch him in almost any role (although my favourite remains, by far, his role as Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding in The Shawshank Redemption). Yet, I had difficulty with his portrayal of Nelson Mandela here. While he is no doubt a capable actor, Mandela is such a presence in our collective memory that it is difficult to accept anyone else as him.
Thankfully, Invictus is not a movie about Nelson Mandela, though he does figure heavily in it. Instead, it tells the tale of the effort to unify South Africa after the end of apartheid and the election of Mandela as President in 1994. Although South Africa faced a multitude of social and economic problems at the time, Mandela saw the country’s success in the rugby World Cup as essential to the unification efforts.
And so Invictus tells the tale of the Springboks, lauded by white South Africans, but despised by black South Africans, as representatives of the system that had kept them down for so long.
At its core, Invictus is a textbook sports movie, its theme triumph over adversity. But because it weaves through it the story of Mandela’s personal struggle, it succeeds in telling a familiar tale. The scene where Matt Damon’s character, rugby captain Francois Pienaar, stands inside Nelson’s jail cell at Robben Island is particularly haunting and effective. Roger Ebert wrote recently:
“Damon’s character — Francois Pienaar, as the team captain — is shown the cell where Mandela was held for those long years on Robben Island. My wife, Chaz, and I were taken to the island early one morning by Ahmed Kathrada, one of Mandela’s fellow prisoners, and yes, the movie shows his very cell, with the thin blankets on the floor. You regard that cell and you think, here a great man waited in faith for his rendezvous with history.”
Invictus isn’t groundbreaking, but where it works, it works well, particularly where it strays from formula and takes its inspiration from its most inspirational character.