A friend of ours is a member of Bafta and so gets all the films up for awards.
We have been lucky enough to see about a dozen in recent weeks, from Up In The Air (I liked it, Fiona loved it) to Funny People (Adam Sandler is a very funny person), Brothers (strong) to My Lovely Bones (scary).
Last night we had my winner though, for what awards I don’t know, but for as many as possible.
I speak of Invictus, the story of Nelson Mandela’s harnessing of rugby to his attempts to reconcile the nation he led after decades of hatreds and division caused by the evil of apartheid.
It focuses in large part on his relationship with Springbok captain Francois Piennar. Morgan Freeman is brilliant as Mandela, Matt Damon brilliant as Piennar.
It cannot be easy playing a living legend, especially one as universally known and loved as Mandela.
Director Clint Eastwood and his team certainly did their homework. There is a scene where Mandela is writing a note. It brought back one of the most vivid memories of the several occasions on which I was privileged enough to be in his presence. I asked him to sign a book for Monica Prentice, a Number 10 messenger, one of the few black people in Downing Street, a lovely woman who adored Mandela. I normally resisted the naffery of asking the Mandelas and Clintons of this world for autographs and memorabilia but I was determined to do it for Monica.
As the official NM-TB meeting in Cape Town broke up, I produced ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ and rather sheepishly asked the great man to sign it. He was already on his feet, but slowly sat down again, took out a pen, opened the book, and very slowly, in handwriting that came back to me last night, began to write ‘To Monica.’ This was around the time of Bill Clinton’s impeachment problems and he stopped on the n of Monica, looked up at me and said ‘not THE Monica I trust.’
He has a wicked sense of humour, which comes through in the film. But so does his insight that sport can be both a healer and an inspirer of men and nations. Rugby was the white man’s sport, and he meets resistance to his attempts to get the majority black population to get behind the Springboks. Likewise Piennar, whose leadership skills are spotted and exploited by Mandela, faces resistance from white players who continue to see democracy as a step too far.
But they both break down the resistance by leading through example. Piennar visits Mandela’s cell on Robben Island and though Damon utters not a word, you can sense him feeling like he is walking in Mandela’s shoes.
The final scenes, in which a nation comes together in celebration of a World Cup victory whose planning obsessed the President, are on a par with the climax of Chariots of Fire, my favourite sports movie ever.
We see white and black bodyguards embracing for the first time, and I love the scene where white cops on duty outside the stadium lift a young township kid high in the air, just as Piennar is raising the trophy. Not a dry eye time.
Fiona thought there was too much rugby in the later stages of the film and not enough Mandela-Piennar relationship. But the rugby scenes are beautifully shot, realistic – Damon has clearly learned about the game – and captures the intensity of elite sport, and its impact upon players and supporters, really well. So even if you’re one of those poor unfortunates who hate sport, this is a wonderful wonderful film, with great acting and lovely music, and I defy anyone not to enjoy and be moved by it.
Ps, Matt Damon gets a mention in Maya, my new novel out shortly about an A-list movie star and how fame changes her life and the lives of those around here. Did I mention I had a novel out soon? You can order on Amazon. These plugs will get more shameless as publication date nears. Piers Morgan says on the front cover that it is a superb read, and who can argue with Simon Cowell’s Number 2? Or is it 3?