Dir: Peter Travis. 2009. UK. 109 mins.
A fascinating subject - the behind-the-scenes negotiations between the ANC and South African government to end apartheid in 1985 - gets an intelligent if unremarkable screen treatment in Endgame, a made-for-TV thriller which had its world premiere at Sundance. Encompassing too many plot strands and characters in its 109 minutes, Endgame is ultimately bogged down in plot, leaving it unable to capture the story's emotional heft.
On a scene-by-scene basis, the film is absorbing, courtesy of director Pete Travis' urgent hand-held documentary style and a cast of excellent actors. But its international theatrical prospects are far from certain. South African stories have not been embraced by audiences of late (The Country Of My Skull, Red Dust, Catch A Fire, Goodbye Bafana) and Endgame will probably work best as the high-end TV movie it was designed to be. Perhaps the South African revolution will be better served by a grander theatrical treatment courtesy of Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon in The Human Factor, due out later this year.
The film, which doesn't track any one character, but keeps several plots going at the same time, begins by following Michael Young (Miller), the director of communications for mining outfit Consolidated Goldfield, as he is smuggled into an ANC stronghold. Although assumed by many to be a supporter of the apartheid regime, Consolidated was looking to secure its future in a South Africa which would inevitably overturn the white government. Young is charged with sponsoring talks between the ANC and influential Afrikaners representing President Botha.
Young manages to secure the participation of Professor Willie Esterhuyse (Hurt) as the lead white negotiator with future president Thabo Mbeki (Ejiofor) representing the ANC. Botha's head of intelligence Neil Barnard (Strong, in a slippery role not dissimilar from his Jordanian intelligence chief in Body Of Lies) ensures that Esterhuyse keeps him fully abreast of the conversations which take place at a country house in England.
But Barnard is also initiating talks with Nelson Mandela himself, moving him out of prison and into more comfortable quarters and then trying to negotiate with him separately from the ANC. By dividing Mandela from the ANC, he hopes to be able to control the inevitable changeover. As the negotiations carry on on both fronts, tensions run increasingly high, especially when Botha has a stroke and FW de Klerk steps into office.
Some of the best historical films from The Queen to Frost/Nixon tell their bigger stories from the point of view of one or two characters, and indeed Travis himself made a stunning debut by exploring the Omagh bombing as it affected one family. Endgame chooses to cover multiple famous figures from Mandela, Mbeki and Oliver Tambo to de Klerk, Botha and Esterhuyse, and inevitably suffers from a lack of focus.
But as he showed in Omagh and his Hollywood debut Vantage Point, Travis is incredibly gifted at building tension, and there are scenes here - notably a car chase in which Mbeki is almost driven off the road - which are about as well-orchestrated and visceral as it gets.
Target Entertainment Group
Target Entertainment Group
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Paula Milne, based on The Fall Of Apartheid by Robert Harvey
Jonny Lee Miller