By Adam Ray Palmer
Francis Annan’s apartheid thriller was the movie I was most excited about from this year’s edition of the Glasgow Film Festival.
I’m a big fan of Daniel Radcliffe, and the Escape From Pretoria narrative would have anyone interested who love a true-life, slow-burning action film.
Based on a book by one of the escapees, Jenkin, called Inside Out: Escape from Pretoria Prison, the film tells the true-life story of political prisoners Jenkin (played by Daniel Radcliffe) and Stephen Lee (played by Daniel Webber), two white South Africans who are put behind bars in 1979 in Pretoria Central Prison on charges of "producing and distributing 18 different pamphlets on behalf of banned organisations" (including the ANC) during the apartheid era in South Africa.
Once immediately put captive in the prison, Jenkin and Lee quickly getting to planning their escape. When they think they are on their own though, a few more political prisoners including Denis Goldberg decide to aid their escape. Escape From Pretoria then becomes a race-against-time scenario for the few that are desperate to be out.
For film-lovers who want to learn more about Jenkin and Lee’s actions around their political life prior to prison life, then this movie probably isn’t enough for you. Within the first 15 minutes, the pair are behind bars and thinking of a way out. Escape From Pretoria does exactly what it says in the title, its sole focus is to document their life in prison and the hopes of getting out, with very little nod to the political times around them.
There are of course themes of the apartheid throughout, and you fully understand the setting, but Francis Annan (writer and director) follows Jenkin’s real-life book on the escape rather than their views. For a 100-minute film, solely on an escape, you’d be forgiven to think the narrative would get pretty stale, pretty quick.
However, where Annan succeeds is the way he positions the ‘training’ for the escape. These sequences, that make up a good 60-70% of the movie, is very reminiscent to edge-of-your-seat scenes in Shutter Island or the rebooted Ocean’s Eleven series. It’s informative as well as entertaining, as we see the methods and the lengths the prisoners are willing to go to to escape. This creates a tension which builds to a 15-minute crescendo at the climax. It’s addictive and thrilling.
Francis Annan, last seen doing a few episodes of Holby City, has really stepped up into the feature-film arena. Having only directed a couple before, Escape From Pretoria is a fine entrant into his back catalogue. I cannot speak highly enough of the entertainment this film gives you for such a linear, one setting movie. As Daniel Radcliffe has panic attacks in his sleep due to the planning of the escape, you feel the exact same anxiety watching them go through the process.
The trifecta of performances from Radcliffe, Webber and Mark Leonard Winter are top drawer. They quickly ensure the audience is behind them, as we will for them to succeed. We go through the highs and lows with them, and as the final act plays out, you feel like you’re the fourth prisoner alongside them. Escape From Pretoria doesn’t disappoint. The film is a triumph.
Cineroom’s rating: 4 stars
Escape From Pretoria screened at the 2020 Glasgow Film Festival as part of the ‘Local Heroes’ strand.