Endgame

| October 18, 2009

Were it not true, it would be unbelievable- in the midst of roiling unrest, clandestine talks between bitter enemies brokered by an unassuming British businessman win out over civil war and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity. This is the story of the end of apartheid in South Africa as told in “Endgame,” showing on Masterpiece Theater on October 25.
The term “endgame” refers to the final stage of a game of chess, when options are limited and the even a pawn can become vastly influential. In this vividly shot film, the waning chess game is played by the South African government imposing apartheid and the African National Congress struggling against it. Originally imagined as a documentary, executive producer David Aukin hit upon the idea of making a political drama out of the end days of apartheid and director Pete Travis crafted a taut, kinetic thriller out of Paula Milne’s well researched screenplay.
As South Africa seethes with social injustice under an inflexible, out of touch government, help comes from an unlikely source. Michael Young is Head of Public Affairs for Consolidated Goldfields, a British gold mining company with strong economic ties to the autocratic regime of P.W. Botha and his successor, F.W.de Klerk. Young (played by Johnny Lee Miller) approaches prominent Afrikaners as well as Thabo Mbeki (Chiwetel Ejiofor) of the African National Congress and offers a neutral space for dialogue between the two groups. He convinces a well respected professor, Will Esterhuye (William Hurt), to act as mediator and this improbable group heads to Consolidated Goldfields’ estate in Somerset, England where against all odds they reach consensus and begin to effect real change in South Africa.
In a quiet, nuanced performance as Professor Will Esterhuye, William Hurt is hugely effective in presenting him as a man struggling with his own prejudices who ultimately loves his country too much to let it sink into chaos and injustice. It is interesting to watch his calm, brave dedication to keeping an open mind and how that helps to foster a genuine rapport between him and Mbeki. As Mbeki, Chiwetel Ejiofor throbs with intense, consuming commitment to avenge the searing injustices he has felt firsthand but has enough wisdom and detachment to ultimately tread the more difficult path of compromise and peace. Another standout is Clarke Peters’ Nelson Mandela, a spot on rendering of this serene, intelligent, incredibly self possessed man.
To make the most of a story that is little more than grown men sitting around a table talking, director Travis makes the most of a conventional thriller score by turns percussive and tense while sometimes using sharp, low cello strokes to punctuate particularly dramatic statements. To avoid feeling completely static, much of the story outside the negotiation table is shot using the jittery, hand held camera method that contrasts starkly with the tense stillness of the talks themselves.
Now more than ever, the premise that negotiation and compromise can succeed over violence is an especially attractive one. “Endgame” is a vivid, well acted representation of a fascinating and little known chapter in the South African experience that reminds us that this is more than just possible- it’s history.

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