Escape from Pretoria
- Sophie Willard
- 2 March 2020
GFF 2020: Daniel Radcliffe stars in a simple and suspenseful prison-break thriller, based on a true story
As prison-break narratives go, none may be more to the point than this true story inspired thriller, in which British director Francis Annan – who co-writes with LH Adams – spends almost the entire duration detailing said escape attempt. A brief introduction to the protagonists, white South Africans Tim Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe) and Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber), offers some context to their incarceration, but Annan is economical with his storytelling; instead, his focus lies in the mechanics of the men's bid for freedom.
Having formed an underground resistance cell for the ANC, Jenkin and Lee were caught leaflet 'bombing' in 1978. Following their arrest, they were sentenced to 12 and eight years respectively at Pretoria Central in the maximum security section reserved for white political prisoners. Believing their inactivity would make them complicit in the government's actions, Jenkin and Lee planned for escape almost instantly.
It's immediately obvious that the British and Australian cast are struggling with the accents; it seems unfair that Radcliffe is encumbered with an unnecessary voiceover, which only spells out what the otherwise committed actors are effective at conveying physically. And with such a narrow focus, the story could only ever feel too streamlined.
Nonetheless, it's a confidently told tale which details the simple yet ingenious escape plan that hinged on making wooden copies of the various prison keys. There's a satisfying visual language on display here, involving numerous close-ups of craftwork, keys turning in locks, and a tense, oddly relatable sequence that involves chewing gum.
Contributing to the suspense elsewhere, cinematographer Geoffrey Hall employs a shot through the keyhole of a door swinging open, previewing the next chamber of the building to the viewer. With purposeful direction, Annan maintains the tension that arises from audience and characters alike not knowing what lies around the next corner, or indeed – for those unfamiliar with the story – if Jenkin and Lee ever made it out.
Screened on Sat 29 Feb and Sun 1 Mar as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2020. Limited release from Fri 6 Mar.