Invictus: too big for Hollywood
Perhaps there should be a special name for a film that has all the right ingredients, but fails to produce a great cinematic experience. A ‘flopscar’, maybe?
With one of Hollywood’s legendary directors, two big-name actors, one of them a four-time Oscar-winning actor, and a storyline that features not one but two dramatic against-all-odds victories, Invictus should have been winner all the way.
It’s not. It’s a worthy and reverential attempt to tell a story that would have seemed utterly implausible if dreamed up by a scriptwriter, and will no doubt do well at South African box offices. But if any of the big names get an Oscar for their work on this production, it will in my opinion be due more to a misguided homage to the greatness of Mandela - not to that of the actors, director or scriptwriter.
I suspect that the more you know about South African history and rugby, the less likely you are to enjoy Invictus. My wife, who knows little about rugby, enjoyed it much more than I did, who know a little about both. I can just imagine the discomfit of a real expert, or even a direct participant in these events, sitting through the film, trying not to notice all the inevitable little inaccuracies.
It shouldn’t be about the minutiae of detail, of course. The ebb and flow of the drama, the veracity and vicissitudes of the characters should carry one away from such petty criticisms.
Unfortunately for me, they didn’t, and my experience of this film was a painfully flawed suspension of disbelief. Little errors of history – such as the Afrikaans-speaking, Gauteng-based Pienaar family having a Cape Times newspaper in their house, or the DF Malan Hoër-skool having a full-blown rugby practice on a Sunday. Or errors of geography, such as when the Springbok team leave their Waterfront hotel at 6am in mid-winter – and bright sunshine! Even errors of typography, such as the credits list ‘The English Rose’s’ (sic).
And then of course there are the errors of accent, such as the many slips from both of the big name stars, and something truly horrendous from one of the actors playing a Springbok team member.
Which brings us to the top-line performances. Morgan Freeman looked the part, certainly does a reasonable visual imitation of Madiba. His personal gravitas overlaps convincingly with that of Mandela in parts. But compared to, for instance, Ben Kingsley’s Gandhi, this was more of an imitation than a performance. And vocally, again from the accent point of view, it was an irritatingly imperfect imitation.
Much the same can be said, I believe, of Matt Damon’s version of Francois Pienaar. Granted, he handled the accent far better than did Freeman, but there were still little slips now and then. And even little slips are enough to crack the fragile simulacrum of reality, destroying the inner consistency of the illusion. In this sense, paradoxically, I found District 9 far more ‘realistic’ a film than Invictus.
And apart from that, Damon seems so intent on not over-acting that his version of Pienaar never rises to any heights of inspiration or leadership. In fact, he seems a pretty weak captain at times – take for example, the anaemic way he introduces Nkosi Sikeleli iAfrika to his team-mates – and a pretty boring guy. I don’t believe Pienaar is either.
The individual character definition of the South African rugby team was pretty poor as well, both in casting and in acting, with the exception of the Chester Williams character.
Of course, we all know what’s going to happen in the end, but even so the film is heavy-handed and predictable. The constant cutting to a growing bonhomie between the little black street child and the white policemen outside stadium during the final, for example, was way too obvious, as was the opening scene that counterpoints the reaction of white rugby-playing school boys’ to Mandela’s release cavalcade to that of the soccer-playing township youth on the other side of the highway.
Yes, I suppose for American audiences who know very little about South African history (or rugby) there needed to be a lot of basic explanations. But for any one who lived through the experience of Madiba’s release and the events of the 1995 World Cup, the experience becomes undeniably pedestrian.
The portrayal of the physicality of rugby was in my opinion poorly achieved. Sound effects – both of big hit tackles as well as big stadium roars – were canned and unconvincing. The repeated and clichéd shot of the scrum from the ball’s point of view did nothing to help. Altogether, this was not much better at depicting the intensity of the sport than the South African television series The Game (starring Gavin Hood, the South African director of Tsotsi, Rendition and Wolverine) – which was pathetic.
Some actual match moves were faithfully recreated – such as the memorable running over of Mike Catt by Johah Lomu – but was it inexperience in sports coverage techniques or inadequate sporting skill on the part of the cast that prevented Eastwood from presenting the games with as much excitement as a skilled sports crew would? Compared to some of the great boxing films such as Raging Bull, I found Invictus a feeble imitation of the actual contests.
Some moments of the subtlety and power that the Eastwood/Freeman tag team achieved in Million Dollar Baby were there – but only touches. As a sports film, it was pretty pathetic, for reasons mostly covered above. Above all, history came up with a game script that would have made most Hollywood scriptwriters cringe with embarrassment – the underdogs up against the superpower somehow scrap through extra time against incredible odds, then prevail in the final minutes of extra time. No, it’s not likely. And Invictus made it seem simply unbelievable.
Similarly, the moral grandeur of Madiba is unlikely, and while the film fares far better at capturing the broader historical realities than it does the particular sporting ones, Freeman’s reverential performance ultimately, for me, falls into cliche.
Invictus is still a big, feel-good film and worth watching if you’d like to revisit the heady days of ‘95. It’s good to see it’s doing well at the American box-office. It’s just a pity it doesn’t quite fulfil the promise of its ingredients.