As any rugby fan can tell you, the Rugby World Cup 2015 is currently in full swing here in the UK. As someone who grew up playing the game who also happens to be an unabashed pop culture geek, my thoughts have naturally turned to Invictus, Clint Eastwood’s 2009 dramatization of the 1995 World Cup held in South Africa.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that Invictus is a bit underwhelming, as biographical sports dramas go. Despite a seemingly made-for-film premise – South African President Nelson Mandela and Springboks captain François Pienaar join forces to unite their fiercely divided nation through rugby – and strong performances by stars Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, the movie falls a bit flat.
Which doesn’t mean Invictus is completely devoid of any emotionally resonant moments. On the contrary, when Pienaar visits Mandela’s old cell on Robben Island is a genuinely affecting scene that hits harder than any of the film’s rugby sequences, and stays with you long after the end credits have rolled.
Here, I’m going to unpack what makes the Robben Island scene work so well, from it’s understated set-up and execution, to its strong performances and clever structure.
A low-key, high impact set-up
On the face of it, the Robben island scene is a simple bit of business. The Springboks tour the prison and Pienaar inspects Mandela’s cell; intercut with this are flashbacks to Mandela’s imprisonment, during which the president is heard reciting the poem that lends Invictus its title. But there’s a lot going on here that isn’t directly communicated, and propels the plot and characters forward even as it engages us emotionally.
The emotion begins to build when Pienaar first enters the cell and is confronted with the simple mat and lone wooden chair that comprised Mandela’s living quarters for nearly two decades. It’s a brutally modest set-up, hammered home all the more because we see it from a downward-looking angle that subtly evokes the domineering atmosphere that would have surrounded Mandela.
Pienaar then closes the cell door and spreads his arms so that he can touch the door’s bars and the wall opposite them. Not only does this demonstrate to the audience just how confined Mandela’s existence was during his imprisonment, it also displays Pienaar’s dawning comprehension of the president’s sacrifice, and the importance of the poem Mandela gave him when they first met.
Allowing the audience to connect the emotional dots
Next, Pieneer gazes out the cell window, at the sun-bleached work yard brilliantly evoked by cinematographer Tom Stern’s oversaturated visuals. It’s here that the words of the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley come to him in Mandela’s own voice – something that’s guaranteed to give all but the most cynical viewers goosebumps.
As these verses which comforted Mandela during his darkest hours flow over Pienaar, he begins to see visions of the president as he appeared all those years ago. Through all the hardship, Mandela’s unshakeable belief that he is the master of his own fate shines through, and reaffirms Pienaar’s faith in their plan to unify the nation, drawing the scene to a close.
Again, very little of this is said; there’s no moment of Pienaar exclaiming “A-ha!”. Instead, Eastwood and screenwriter Anthony Peckham leave it up to viewers to make this philosophical and emotional connection, and the scene is all the more effective for it.
A restrained approach to potentially bombastic subject matter
This minimalist approach carries over to the acting, as well.
As Pienaar, Damon carries the Robben Island scene initially, evoking the necessary mood of reverence and a believable sense of introspection. Once Freeman’s voiceover begins, however, the Oscar-winner makes the scene his own. Freeman is well-known for his sonorous pipes, so it’s little wonder that when he’s provided with words as stirring as those found in the “Invictus” poem, the result is pure cinematic gold.
Obviously, Peckham can’t take the credit for William Ernest Henley’s original words. But he does deserve a nod for weaving them into the film via voiceover, which ends up being far more memorable than a grandiose scene of Freeman reciting the poem directly to Pienaar (and the audience).
Equally subdued yet effective are the visual effects used to incorporate the Mandela of the past into the present-day setting. He and his fellow prisoners are portrayed as muted figures, fading in and out reality – a haunting effect that exudes the feeling of viewing nameless ghosts lost to time. Integrating the flashbacks this way was an inspired choice on the part of Peckham and Eastwood, and the final moment in the scene when Pienaar locks eyes with the spectre of Mandela is particularly clever.
This unconventional meeting of minds – epitomised by the close-ups on the sombre faces of both men – further establishes the connection between the two, and underscores Pienaar’s newfound understanding of Mandela’s ordeal. Most importantly of all, though, it’s what sells us on the idea that Pienaar is now pursuing World Cup victory not merely as an for personal sporting glory, but for the greater good of black and white South Africans alike.
So even though Invictus isn’t a great movie, moments like the Robben Island scene are still a powerful reminder of the capacity for entertainment – whether that’s sport or the arts – to spur us on to make this world a better place.