Film Review: Endgame

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PARK CITY -- Add to the growing list of movies attempting to explain the vile apartheid governing system in South Africa and its eventual demise this striking new movie, "Endgame."

This is a hypnotically gripping account of secret talks held in the secluded English countryside that laid much of the groundwork for negotiations that brought racial warfare to an end. Writer Paula Milne meticulously selects the vital personalities and scenes to recount this episode. Director Pete Travis then stages these scenes as if this were a political thriller, underscoring the dangers -- no exaggeration there -- to those involved and a vivid sense of time running out before blood runs everywhere.

The result is something like an old-fashioned Costa-Gavras film but without the leftist sentimentality. The film is a sure bet for political and historical junkies, but this may not be enough for theatrical exposure beyond festivals. Television is the best home for this movie produced by, among other entities, Britain's Channel 4.

The furtive talks between the imprisoned Nelson Mandela (Clarke Peters) and President P.W. Botha's wily head of intelligence Dr. Neil Barnard (Mark Strong) are well known. But other than readers of Robert Harvey's book, "The Fall of Apartheid," on which is the film is based, few know about a dozen talks in an English country manor that paralleled the Mandela discussions over several years.

The movie begins with a seemingly minor player, English businessman Michael Young (Jonny Lee Miller), who works for a British mining company complicit with the hated Afrikaner regime. However, the company's head (Derek Jacobi) sees what anyone with intelligence knows: Apartheid is doomed. All that is left is the endgame. The company means to secure its future by hosting secret talks.

The film then focuses on two figures -- Thabo Mbeki (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the African National Congress leader who will later become South Africa's president, and Professor Willie Esterhuyse (William Hurt), a lecturer in philosophy and an Afrikaner. Botha learns of these talks and decides to use them along with the Mandela talks to divide and conquer his opponents. Dr. Bernard even tells Esterhuyse he is to act as the regime's spy.

Gradually, though, a shaky trust gets established between the two men. The first breakthrough comes when Esterhuyse tells Mbeki of Dr. Bernard's demand.

The film is designed and plays like a thriller. Young is smuggled into a black township to hear firsthand of Afrikaner atrocities. Secret police are everywhere, lurking in cars, following everyone, tapping phones. Death threats fill answering machines. A car bomb seriously injures an ANC lawyer. A devastating ANC bomb nearly scuttles the talks. Armed men in a truck chase Mbeki's car through the bush, a threat from his own side not to negotiate with the enemy.

These scenes hook the viewer, who then stays to witness how people put bitterness aside to delicately negotiate, away from the media spotlight, away from the bloodshed and angry rhetoric. Hurt and Ejiofor, both sporting reasonable sounding accents, brilliantly exemplify how this is done. They are cautious and cagey in equal measure. Eventually, they learn how to talk to each other.

The film is not so much a history lesson -- the filmmakers say this is a fictional piece inspired by Harvey's book -- but a thrilling primer on how to end conflicts of blood hatred. The film claims the IRA consulted with the ANC before negotiating with the British. This film really needs to screen in the Middle East.

Production: Channel 4, Target Entertainment Group and Masterpiece present a Daybreak Pictures production
Cast: William Hurt, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mark Strong, Jonny Lee Miller, Clarke Peters, John Kani, Derek Jacobi
Director: Pete Travis
Screenwriter: Paula Milne
Based on the book by: Robert Harvey
Producers: David Aukin, Hal Vogel
Executive producers: Liza Marshall, Arwel Rees, Ian Jones, Alison Rayson, Rebecca Eaton
Director of photography: David Odd
Production designer: Chris Roope
Music: Martin Phipps
Costume designer: Dinah Collin
Editors: Clive Barrett, Dominic Strevens
Sales: Target Entertainment

No rating, 106 minutes