Friday, August 7, 2009

Endgame: finishing off apartheid

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

Michael Young (Jonny Lee Miller) is the invisible man who brings together white South Africa and the African National Congress in the early ‘90s. Endgame is a film about talk. It’s the dying days of apartheid. The government condones clandestine discussions in England as a stalling tactic to try to divide the ANC leadership.

Academic Professor Will Esterhuyse (William Hurt) and future SA President Thabo Mbeki (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lead the two sides. Separate overtures are being made to Nelson Mandela (Clarke Peters) by Dr. Niel Barnard (Mark Strong) head of the SA National Intelligence Service. Esterhuyse becomes an unlikely double agent as his friendship with Mbeki grows.

It’s a chess game whose result is famous so the macro-political level is not the focus of this treatment. Mandela is not the central character of this story. Nor do the director Pete Travis and writer Paula Milne spend much time on the brutality perpetrated by both sides. Two short bombing incidents and a fairly tame car chase will not satisfy action movie fans. Silences and stillness are as important as the dialogue, dramatic as it is. It’s a tight script with few wasted shots.

The extraordinary cast includes Derek Jacobi as the boss of Consolidated Goldfields who are the secret sponsors of the talks and Timothy West as President P.W. Botha. The actors manage the Afrikaans accent extremely well. The decision to cast Clarke Peters as Mandela plays out quite well as he captures the spiritual stature of the man without having his physical size.

The filmmakers also resist the temptation to use clich├ęd fades into the real people at the end. It's a pity that neither the official website nor IMDb give John Kani a credit for his role as ANC President Oliver Tambo. He is among the profiles on Channel4 which showed the film earlier in the year. Its website has lots of additional information about the end of apartheid as well as the film itself.

Engame proves that talking heads can be much more compelling than computer enhanced action flicks.

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