Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bloody, but unbowed

I remember clearly what I did on June 24th, 1995. It was a warm and sunny day in England and I was at a school fete, yet most of the parents at that fete spent two hours crowded into a marquee, watching the final of the Rugby World Cup. Against the odds and with the very public support of Nelson Mandela, South Africa won.

So when I saw that a film, Invictus, had been made describing that World Cup I was intrigued. The raw story was astonishing from many points of view. The South African team was not expected to do well. The newly-elected president was hardly expected to be interested in a game that is almost a religion to his political opponents, the Afrikaners. Both Mandela and the Springboks (as the SA rugby team is called) drew inspiration from a Victorian, yet Victorians treated both black and Afrikaner South Africans dreadfully.

On the other hand, South African films tend to be schmaltzy and I was sceptical that Morgan Freeman (Mandela) or Matt Damon (the South African rugby captain, Francois Pienaar) could do justice to their roles, or even do a reasonable accent. Too often, doing another country's accent ends up in caricature.

However, my curiousity won out and I went.

I am so glad I did. The film did a fine job of telling the story of South Africa's newly-won freedom from apartheid, the tensions and suspicions between white and black in the new South Africa, the abysmal state of SA rugby in the months leading up to the World Cup and a few of the many challenges faced by Mandela.

In its portrayal of the game of rugby this film is in its element, and this is why you should see it at the cinema rather than see it on TV. Unlike in American football, rugby offers no body armour to its players. Tackles by players are brutally hard: injuries not uncommon. The film makers created great feeling for this by a number of clever approaches, including filming the scrum from underneath.

There is a fairytale ending in which a match of two hours, drawn at full-time is won in extra time by a last minute drop kick at goal. This united a new nation in pride and seems the kind of thing that could only happen in fiction. Yet in all its essential elements this story is a true record of what happened. Morgan Freemen is an excellent and credible Mandela: Matt Damon plays Francois Pienaar superbly. My South African wife tells me that his Afrikaans accent is virtually perfect.

There are touching moments: there are harsh moments. There is hope and frustration. Finally, as happened on June 24th, there is incredible victory and exhilaration. It's a great film, and one of my rare recommendations. Go and see it now and get 2010 off to a great start.

Footnote: the Victorian who inspired both Mandela and Pienaar was English poet William Ernest Henley (1849–1903). His poem gives the film its title.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.


robwallace said...

I remember that day so vividly, Sean, and the night that followed.

Thanks for that review; I shall have to try and see the film.

Anonymous said...

I've heard it's very good. And the story sounds great, but watching team sports is guaranteed to over-ride my insomnia in the blink of an eye. ;)

I'm planning to start the new year with "Broken Embraces".

Welcome back!

Sean Haffey said...


Actually I saw it twice, which is rare indeed. I went back the following day with the rest of my family.


90% of the film is about the lead-in to the game, which is fascinating. I've never thought much of Morgan Freeman - a pleasant actor was the best view I had of him. This is a revelation. Go and see it!

(And if you fall asleep, it's probably overdue!) But you won't.

Anonymous said...

ok, good to know! And great review, btw.

Happy New Year. Happy New Decade, if you're of the school that the decade ends/starts this year. ;)