This was a magnificent drama that revealed the ‘hidden’ – or at least, little known – events that led up to the end of apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela from imprisonment in South Africa…
This docudrama film looked inside the heart of the political, social, moral and commercial influences that facilitated this momentous time in history, and most of it took place not in traditional settings such as government buildings – or even in Africa – but in a rural mansion in Somerset…
And with a cast list that included names such as William Hurt, Derek Jacobi, Timothy West, Mark Strong, Clarke Peters, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jonny Lee Miller, it would’ve had a job to go wrong, and it didn’t.
It was riveting viewing from start to finish, and as it was written by the BAFTA award winning Paula Milne and wonderfully directed by Pete Travis – who made the film in a documentary-esque style while managing to seamlessly intersperse it with edge-of-your-seat ‘thrills’ – when those forces met the cast list as mentioned above, they created one of those increasingly rare films where there was literally nothing to criticise. It was excellence of a kind that one rarely sees…
Set in the mid 1980s, when political tensions in South Africa were running at an almost uncontainable level, and when the world was demanding that Nelson Mandela be freed from his imprisonment, this film told the story of how the public affairs director of Consolidated Goldfields, Michael Young – who was impeccably played by Jonny Lee Miller – brokered a meeting between exiled leaders of the African National Congress (ANC), powerful players from the unstable governmental arena of Africa as well as influential anti-apartheid figures.
And rather surprisingly, this meeting took place in the calm of scenic, pastoral Somerset, where the verdant landscape and the expensive executive vehicles on the gravelled drive were literally and metaphorically a world away from the simultaneous tumult of South Africa.
The film of the meeting was interspersed with scenes from South Africa, and the incongruity of one minute watching tea being sipped from delicate china tea cups by men in suits in Somerset to the next scene where car bombs ignited at the turn of a key – and the violence of South Africa’s political unrest was graphically shown – only added to the superiority of this drama.
Likewise, the telling of the story of how many people risked their lives – including Michael Young himself – to bring this meeting about was utterly compelling.
And meanwhile – working for P.W. Botha as the conniving Head of Intelligence – Doctor Neil Barnard, played by Mark Strong, opened secretive talks with the imprisoned Nelson Mandela, who was wonderfully portrayed by Clarke Peters.
The negotiations first took place at Pollsmoor Prison and then later in the heavily bugged and closely monitored warden’s home at Victor Verster Prison. Dr Barnard’s remit was to squeeze as many concessions out of Mandela as he could while simultaneously instructing the Afrikaners to do the same with the ANC in the UK.
This was the backdrop of the Somersest talks; negotiations about fundamental democracy taking place amid talk of business, finance and alternately moralistic issues, all carried out between persons of diametrically opposed interests. Some were intent on safeguarding their own self-interests, including monetary greed, while others wanted nothing for themselves but wanted justice, democracy and freedom for the oppressed Afrikaners, and with no party willing to back down on their stance, it appeared that the meeting would fail.
However, after tense discussion with heavy overtones of mistrust and for some, loathing for many of those at the meeting, somehow, a frail but nonetheless tangible trust between the two opposing ‘sides’ of the apartheid argument – which was a conclusion that had appeared inconceivable – happened, so the mild-mannered Michael Young’s brokerage of the meeting had an outcome that spelled the beginning of the end of apartheid and would see Mandela freed.
At the end of the film, a caption revealed that, a decade after these talks, the IRA had surreptitiously asked the ANC for advice on negotiating a peace of their own and those same IRA representatives are now believed to be passing on that advice and what they learned to Hamas.
The acting throughout – be it in the setting of the meeting or in South Africa – was exceptional. Clarke Peters flawlessly portrayed Nelson Mandela’s dignified manner as well as depicting his moral and personal strength while Timothy West as P. W. Botha was utterly convincing in his role and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Thabo Mbeki equally excelled, as did William Hurt – pictured above – as Professor Will Esterhuyse.
This really was a tremendous drama and if you missed it, I highly recommend you try to catch it on 4OD or when it’s repeated next Saturday on Channel 4 at 7pm.