Synopsis: Two white South Africans, imprisoned for working on behalf of the African National Congress (ANC), determine to escape from the notorious white man’s `Robben Island’, Pretoria Prison.
Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Ian Hart, Daniel Webber, Mark Leonard Winter, Nathan Page, Stephen Hunter
Director: Francis Annan
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Just when you think you’ve seen all the prison movies you can take, along comes Escape from Pretoria and you find that you have to give it a chance. I mean, it’s an important true-life tale of political prisoners in the late ‘70s South Africa unjustly jailed for spreading propaganda denouncing apartheid who form a clever plan over time to escape their captors. Along the way there are setbacks and strife, inspirational moments and bitter defeats, culminating in a broad daylight break out for freedom. Let’s be real, The Shawshank Redemption it ain’t but it stirs some of the same emotional vibes of that gem of a film and uses them to keep your interest for much of its tense running length.
Caught setting off small explosives that send political messages with anti-apartheid sentiment into the air, Tim Jenkin and Stephen Lee were both sentenced to multiple years in Pretoria Central Prison in 1979. Unable to bribe their way out of confinement, it would have been easy to just accept their sentence and serve their time but Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe, Victor Frankenstein) wasn’t going to give his racist government the satisfaction of holding him prisoner. Though his other anti-apartheid inmates felt that serving their time was an honor and an important representation of their sacrifice for the cause, Jenkin, Lee (Daniel Webber), and French prisoner Leonard Fontaine (Mark Leonard Winter, The Dressmaker) were of the belief they could do more outside the walls.
For over a year, Jenkin plotted an ingenious method of escape. It didn’t involve digging a hole or shimmying through a sewer drain but making keys to the prison cells out of the wood scraps they had at their disposal. With a number of doors to account for and even more methods of opening them, making the keys was easy but figuring out the sequence of events without getting caught was the real challenge. Jenkin’s trial and error over time is what writer/director Francis Annan uses to create some fairly suspenseful sequences along the way, keeping audiences unconsciously biting their nails or gripping their armrests. Each bead of sweat that hangs precipitously from a brow and every key that won’t open a lock when it has to is worth at least a few fingernail clippings. That Annan can keep up this atmosphere throughout is worth noting, especially when you can tell the budget for this one wasn’t huge and the simple sets require some imagination to work in.
Though he (like everyone in the movie) battles more with his accent than any prison guard, Radcliffe continues to take on interesting roles that challenge him. He seems intent to not play the same character or shade of character the same way twice and that’s impressive. He’s long past the point of having to prove he’s more than just Harry Potter and now you can see he’s doing it for himself and not to show his naysayers he’s limited. As an elder prisoner, Ian Hart (Mary Queen of Scots) has a nice turn as a source of sage advice for Jenkin…even if he doesn’t always like what the more seasoned inmate has to say. Winter, too, is good in early scenes as a man determined to get out not just for his own freedom but so that he can reunite with his child, though he gets increasingly wild as the film progresses, the first half of the movie is a well crafted look at a man intent on not letting the system beat him.
It would be easy to browse past this one but I’d encourage giving it a chance. Like the recent underseen remake of Papillon, while it may look predictable, it isn’t as cut and dry as it may appear at first glance. With Annan’s intelligent direction and the excellent performances throughout, this is one prison film you could get locked up in.