TL;DR – A exploration of tension when one wrong step can be fatal.
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
One of the things I like the most about cinema is when they let me know of stories that I have previously been unaware of. As well as this, I have seen a lot of prison break films in my time, some fictional, some real, some ‘we think this is how they did it’, and I have always found them fascinating. Well, today we get to explore both of these with Escape From Pretoria.
So to set the scene, we open in the heart of apartheid South Africa with accrual footage of the time. It is here where we are introduced to Tim Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe) and Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber) who work setting up leaflet bombs for the African National Congress or ANC. One day after a successful campaign, they are captured by the police and sentenced to twelve and eight years in the all-white political prisoner’s prison in Pretoria. While in Pretoria jail they meet Denis Goldberg (Ian Hart) who was put on trial with Nelson Mandela and fellow prisoner Leonard Fontaine (Mark Leonard Winter). They dream of escaping, but how do you do that when you are locked behind several feet of steel?
Where Escape From Pretoria excels is in its moments of tension, which when your movie is set in prison can be found nearly anywhere. At any moment someone who you don’t want to overhear could be listing, something your plan needed could fall apart, or at any moment a guard could arrive. There is one moment where a key jams in a lock while a guard is coming where everything hangs in that one moment. If they are caught, their whole plan is gone, and any hope of escape vanishes. You can feel the tension, see it in everyone’s faces, as the rest of the plan comes together (helped a bit by a lack of security cameras) there is always a guard almost in reach, almost finding their plans.
A lot of that tension is channelled through the performances of the lead characters in what is a relatively small cast when compared to other similar films. Daniel Radcliffe is, of course, the big-name grab here and he has to a lot of the heavy narrative lifting as he is our point of view character for most of the film. He has to manage a character that is going through extreme stress with the highs and lows that accompany that. Then we have Daniel Webber, who is playing more of the anchor for the group helping to stop things from spiralling. Because of the small cast, it makes those interactions all the more important because you have nowhere to hide.
The filmmaking behind the scenes is all solid. Putting aside the fact that this was clearly shot in Australia, they make good use of the practical sets, and what looks like an old jail they were using. This practical nature made everything that more tactile as they jammed those wooden keys in and you sit there wondering if this would be the time it breaks. A lot of the tension is built through the camera from the meandering of a guard up some stairs to the grip of fingers on the end of a screw. The cammer lingers just a bit longer than you are comfortable withdriving you into this world. All of this helps to set the mood and have you sitting on the edge of your set. I am assuming since many of the people involved in the prison break help to advise with the script that the story is a fair representation of the events.
In the end, do we recommend Escape From Pretoria? Yes, yes we would. It is not the biggest or flashiest film I have watched this year. But it is a solid exploration of tension, amped even more if you don’t know the outcome. There is a solid cast here, as well as robust action moments, and it had me engaged to the very end. If you liked Escape From Pretoria, I would also recommend you Dunkirk.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Escape From Pretoria
Directed by – Francis Annan
Screenplay by – Francis Annan & L.H. Adams
Based on – Inside Out: Escape from Pretoria Prison by Tim Jenkin
Music by – David Hirschfelder
Cinematography by – Geoffrey Hall
Edited by – Nick Fenton
Production/Distribution Companies – South Australian Film Corporation, Arclight Films, Particular Crowd, Spier Films, Enriched Media Group, Storybridge Films, Footprint Films, Beagle Pug Films & Universal Pictures
Starring – Daniel Radcliffe, Daniel Webber, Ian Hart, Mark Leonard Winter, Nathan Page, Grant Piro, Adam Ovadia, Adam Tuominen, Ratidzo Mambo & Vuyo Loko
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: na; Germany: na; New Zealand: na; United Kingdom: 12A; United States: PG-13