sun 05/07/2020

Escape from Pretoria review - fun but facile prison-break drama | reviews, news & interviews

Escape from Pretoria review - fun but facile prison-break drama

Escape from Pretoria review - fun but facile prison-break drama

Lightweight treatment of a true story from the apartheid era

Daniel Radcliffe as Tim Jenkin

Based on the book by former political prisoner Tim Jenkin, Escape from Pretoria is an intermittently engaging jailbreak tale set in South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1970s, as well as further evidence of Daniel Radcliffe’s determination to run as far as possible in the opposite direction from his past life as Harry Potter. Its only problem is a troubling case of schizophrenia, since it’s not sure whether to be a pared-down thriller or a political statement.

Radcliffe plays Jenkin, who with his fellow African National Congress-supporting comrade Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber) gets arrested for a comically inept stunt where the pair of them put exploding bundles of political leaflets in wastepaper bins. Apparently it didn’t even occur to them to run away after they’d done it, and within the twinkling of an eye the outraged judiciary had the pair despatched to Pretoria Central Prison (12 years for Jenkin, eight for Lee).

The prison is a hellhole of brutish warders, primitive cells and trigger-happy snipers patrolling the walls, but our protagonists are determined to break out. Although there’s an ANC prisoners’ council in the jail, run by another real-life character, Denis Goldberg (Ian Hart), they’re strangely negative about Jenkin’s plans and try to dissuade the pair from going ahead with it. They won’t listen though, and partnering up with the volatile Frenchman Leonard Fontaine (Mark Leonard Winter), they set about hatching a wildly improbable scheme (Radcliffe and Daniel Webber, pictured below).

It involves making a set of keys to all the various doors they’ll need to open if they’re going to make their getaway. Since their resources are severely restricted, Jenkin settles on the idea of fabricating the keys from wood in the prison workshop.

The core of the film is a claustrophobic account of how Jenkin studies the warders’ keys while the others distract their attention, then figures out various incredible methods of getting the keys into the appropriate locks while still inside his cell, using a mixture of home-made Meccano and a pulley system. This prompts various nile-biting moments as the escapees test out their plans in the middle of the night, narrowly evading prowling warders. The ever-suspicious guards keep searching their cells, but luckily manage to overlook telltale evidence when it’s staring them in the face.

Director Francis Annan uses archive footage to evoke the riots and brutality of apartheid, and period cars, posters and clothes wing us back Seventies-wards, but the fierce politics of the era are kept firmly in the background and are never fully addressed. The end result feels quaintly old-fashioned, like a World War Two prison camp movie. Meanwhile, the portrayal of the prison guards as shouty, incredibly thick caricatures makes the film resemble a spin-off from Ronnie Barker’s Porridge. And why can nobody do a plausible South African accent? It’s quite watchable, but it’s an odd mixture.

The prison is a hellhole of brutish warders, primitive cells and trigger-happy snipers patrolling the walls

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters