Since even DVR owners can't watch everything worthwhile on Sunday night television, the recent releases of Endgame and Emma - presentations on PBS' Masterpiece Contemporary and Masterpiece Classic, respectively - is good news indeed.
Endgame (Monterey Video, $26.95) is part of a growing body of movies (including A Dry White Season, Cry Freedom, Mandela and de Klerk, and Invictus) about the popular revolt against apartheid in South Africa and the efforts of freedom fighter-turned-president Nelson Mandela to unite his racially fragmented country. Endgame made its international debut at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival before airing on PBS last October. It also had a limited theatrical run.
Director Pete Travis (Vantage Point) and screenwriter Paula Milne skillfully turn what is essentially a movie about two sets of negotiations into a tense political thriller. Endgame begins in 1985, when black resistance to white minority rule is growing, as are international sanctions against the apartheid regime. The government of President P.W. Botha maintains its repressive policies, but, in an effort to divide the outlawed African National Congress, has its head of national security, Dr. Neil Barnard (Mark Strong), begin secret discussions with Mandela (Clarke Peters, of HBO's The Wire), the still-imprisoned ANC leader.
At the same time, some forward-thinking businessmen come to the conclusion that if apartheid's fall is inevitable, they must do something to protect their future in a country with new leaders and a new government. Michael Young (Jonny Lee Miller), the public relations adviser for Consolidated Gold Fields, a British-owned mining company that made its fortune in South Africa by cooperating with the white regime and relying on exploited black labor, decides that trust must be developed between the opposing sides before a meaningful and peaceful transition to democracy can take place.
Young manages to bring representatives of the two sides together for a series of discussions in an English manor house. Representing the ANC is its young information officer (and the future successor of Mandela as president of South Africa), Thabo Mbeki (Chiwetel Ejiofor). The Afrikaaner delegation is headed by a respected university professor, Will Esterhuyse (William Hurt), a man known for both his opposition to apartheid and his commitment to protecting his own people and culture. The difficult negotiations begin with Mbeki stating clearly that "We are not here to discuss reforming apartheid … we are here to talk about abolishing it," and the professor recounting a range of Afrikaaner fears (from "Our children getting slaughtered in their beds" to the South African economy falling to the "same postcolonial chaos of the other African states").
As these highly charged discussions proceed, Endgame does an excellent job in depicting the growing turmoil in South Africa: the escalating rebellion and police repression in the black townships, assassinations of ANC leaders abroad, and a terrorist bombing in a white South African neighborhood. It shows the pressures, including assassination threats and government surveillance, placed upon the protagonists, Mbeki and Esterhuyse.
But Endgame avoids artificially inflating the importance of the discussions. Instead, it skillfully places them in the context of what is happening on the streets of South Africa and in the ongoing discussions within the government and within the ANC about Mandela and his future. Hurt and Ejiofor both give excellent performances as two protagonists attempting to understand each other's motives and desires in this high-stakes drama.
The DVD's bonus features are limited - brief interviews with actors Hurt and Miller, director Travis, writer Milne, and producers David Aukin and Hal Vogel - but informative.
Emma, the latest adaptation of the Jane Austen novel, takes place half a world away and 170 years before Endgame. The four-part historical drama, which offers a keen view of the role of women in the socially stratified world of English country society of the early 19th century, is available in a two-disc DVD boxed set (BBC Worldwide, $34.98).
But Emma does share more with Endgame than its relationship to PBS. Jonny Lee Miller, who adeptly plays the crucial role of Michael Young in the apartheid drama, appears in Emma in the even more important role of Mr. Knightley. Miller's earnest and steadfast performance works in perfect balance with Romola Garai's terrific turn in the title role. Garai captures the intelligence, vivaciousness, and sweetness of Emma Woodhouse, as well as her inveterate gossiping and inept matchmaking. Michael Gambon provides excellent support as Emma's loving worry-wart of a father.
This Emma, directed by Jim O'Hanlon, has been stretched to a slightly overlong four hours, which gives it plenty of time to show off the magnificent English countryside, the Woodhouse's stately red brick country manor, and early 19th-century costumes and dances. (DVD featurettes on locations, costumes, and music offer illustrative background material.)
Lovers of Jane Austen should not be disappointed.