Movie Review: Escape from Pretoria

Escape from Pretoria is a gripping thriller inspired by the life of South African political activist Tim Jenkin and his autobiography, ‘Inside Out: Escape from Pretoria Prison’. Arrested for planting leaflet bombs and distributing propaganda against the apartheid government, he and several others were incarcerated at a prison in Pretoria in 1979. Based on the incredible true story of Jenkin, who banded together with a few inmates, they staged one of the most daring and intricate prison escapes imaginable.

Ordinarily, you’d expect escapes to revolve around digging tunnels, mistaken identity, sleight-of-hand, bribery or overpowering guards. This is what makes Escape from Pretoria so special. A pure quest for freedom and justice separates Escape from Pretoria from many of its contemporaries. In the spirit of the TV series, Magyver, our hero uses invention, available resources, physics and his brains. Perhaps this is why casting Daniel Radcliffe was such an inspired choice, giving the unlikely action star a chance to shift gear. Having South African heritage from his mother’s side, the role of Jenkin must have been more personal for him, since he also spent some time between the UK and South Africa.

Radcliffe is supported by Daniel Webber, Mark Leonard Winter and Ian Hart. Webber is a right-hand man to Radcliffe, Winter brings a wave of French liberty as the impassioned Leonard and Hart tackles a key role playing the late Rivonia trial defendant and ANC stalwart, Denis Goldberg. A starring performance for the defiant Radcliffe, he’s always front and centre as the industrious Jenkin in a thriller that could have been called ‘Cold Sweat’. Bringing a relentless mission obsession to life, he captures the character’s ceaseless optimism and resilience.

Escape from Pretoria adds dabs of personal detail through photos and raw information without much texture or nuance and could have done with further exposition in terms of character. Quick on the draw and not quite feeling the prison time, it does play a bit of catch up as a girlfriend and sick father photo echo faintly. Jenkin’s steely determination, raw ingenuity and moral conviction keep the role action-orientated for Radcliffe. While thoughtful and pensive, it hovers in the realm of do-or-die Tom Cruise rather than leaning on emotional complexity or natural charm. Lee is mostly a cypher, who keeps to the shadows in favour of “Count of Monte Cristo” accomplice, Leonard, who siphons most of the human connection.

Escape From Pretoria

“Does it look like I’m joking?”

This thriller is an important step for director Francis Annan, who gets a chance to grapple with a project worthy of his brimming talents. Having amassed a great deal of experience from directing across an array of formats… he’s able to channel this collective into a feature with clout. Carefully calibrating scenes much like the key master at the core of this story, Annan knows how to generate suspense, leveraging some of the film’s smallest moments to great effect. There are some touches that could have been a bit more delicate, but Escape from Pretoria makes for compelling viewing.

The film sets the scene by describing apartheid as a system where black protestors were being shot like rabbits while their white counterparts sipped pina coladas on the beach. While you could infer this contrast in a poetic manner, using such sweeping generalisations, archive protest and surf footage just makes it unintentionally funny to ludicrous even. There are a few awkward moments… where Jenkins and Lee greet in the back of a police van, the “suppository” scene, the Captain’s “are you deaf” speech and even the initial reference to being “a white Mandela”.

The South African connection has come under a great deal of scrutiny following the release’s title and trailer. Pretoria isn’t known for its political asylum, conjuring up jacaranda trees, the Union buildings, suburban life and die-hard rugby fans for South Africans. So while the movie’s title will probably sound quite grand and mythical for international audiences, it has a comic edge in its home country. The trailer drew much attention because it was a South African film with Daniel Radcliffe, but also due to its unwieldy South African accents, which are inconsistent to the point of distraction.

It’s a challenging accent to master, made all the more difficult by our eleven official languages and many dialects and variations. It’s easy for locals to recognise a true South African accent but it’s just as easy to spot a coerced one. The perceived lack of any true South African accents from the trailer cast further aspersions about Escape from Pretoria‘s authenticity. It was filmed in Australia and is short on genuine South African accents and cast members. While these decisions seem to show a flagrant disregard for an important piece of South African history, there’s actually good reason. According to an interview with Annan, negotiations with South Africa’s department of arts and culture hampered the production to the point that it was forced to move over and cast in Australia or cease completely.

Escape from Pretoria will have some clanging moments for the South African ear, where it just sounds wrong. However, it would be a mistake to simply dismiss the prison escape thriller. Radcliffe’s starring role, a driving soundtrack and a cleverly mounted opening scene smooth things over with a few voice-overs to move things along. While the ideological set up creates further resonance with the characters, it quickly slips into prison break mode as Jenkin enters the maximum security penitentiary. Latching onto the big escape idea, discovering who he can trust and adjusting to the new routine, it’s not long before Annan has swathed his audience in a gripping prison thriller.

Fluid cinematography and excellent pacing keep the story lean, visually appealing and entertaining. Soaring shots, gliding camera movement and great use of space give Escape from Pretoria a polished feel. Delving into the prison setting using keyhole views (which could have been used even more liberally) the eye is constantly fascinated without getting a sense of the culture’s dull routine. The edit reinforces this, keeping the story moving along at a brisk pace with the impressive soundtrack in full support. The storytelling travels lightly, feeding out just enough line to keep it taut, baiting the viewer with snippets of character.

The sound design is excellent, pairing quite beautifully with the visuals to create elegant moments of suspense. Capturing every creak and lock click, Annan keeps us on tenterhooks as Jenkin has one close encounter with being discovered by the guards after another. The director toys with the gamesmanship of the escape, the fine-tuning of their modus operandi and the trial and error learning curve. Adopting a similar sense of dignity and poise to The Shawshank Redemption, there are skirmishes but it retains the patience and low tech security of the ’70s. The laidback prison sentence involving activities such as woodwork, gardening, a library and having writing implements at their disposal enhance the film’s bygone era and association with Frank Darabont’s classic.

Whatever reservations you have about the film’s authenticity quickly dissolve as you become immersed in the excitement and powerful undertow of this gripping political thriller. While lean, its truly suspenseful and moves at a rapid pace, capturing everything we love about prison break thrillers. It’s fresh thanks to Radcliffe’s starring role, Jenkin’s perspective as a white anti-apartheid activist and the innovative and resourceful Macgyver escape angle. Sleek visuals, a taut atmosphere, a driving soundtrack and authentic production design transcend the film’s superficial flaws to make for an entertaining, gripping and enjoyable thriller with a substantial message. Although far from perfect, it does capture the spirit of the times and the essence of the true story with panache and great entertainment value.

The bottom line: Stirring