Dir: Francis Annan
In 1978, ANC members Tim Jenkin and Stephen Lee (Daniel Radcliffe and Daniel Webber) were sent to Pretoria Prison in South Africa for a series of leaflet bombings in protest against the government and its apartheid regime. They immediately began plotting their escape; observing the guards keys and cutting wooden replicas.
You couldn’t accuse Francis Annan’s film (his first widely released feature, following shorts and TV work) of lacking focus. The preliminaries are dealt with quickly, with Jenkin and Lee’s last leaflet bombing, their arrest and their trial all neatly dealt with within the first 12 minutes or so. The politics are given context just as quickly, but the film assumes you understand what apartheid was and settles into its main focus; the meticulous preparations for the escape of Jenkin, Lee and Leonard Fontaine (Mark Leonard Franklin), a fictionalised version of third escapee Alex Moumbaris.
The process scenes are interesting; the trial and error of making keys precise enough to work and finding ways to hide the various implements needed for the escape. Annan is also able to leech painful tension out of practice runs of the escape. Because the replica keys are made of wood there is a constant, gnawing, nervousness that one might break off in a lock, and in one sequence the tiny creak of a cupboard door is enough to set us on edge. What we miss is some of the behind the scenes process, which could have added greater context to a film that often makes it feel as though this plan was entirely, if meticulously, improvised. A little reading demonstrates that’s far from true.
In focusing in so completely on process, Annan and his co writers sacrifice some character writing. Tim is the stoic hero whose resolve and planning are carrying the day, Leonard the family man missing his kid. Stephen Lee on the other hand, almost entirely disappears. Daniel Webber is fine in the role, but I couldn’t tell you much about Lee’s personality. Radcliffe is also pretty good, his accent wobbles from time to time, but his natural nervous energy works particularly well in a scene in which the keys are almost discovered, as we can see his Jenkin holding panic just below the surface.
The issue with Escape From Pretoria isn’t that it’s a bad film, it has a few standout moments (the use of a plunger to add tension in the final scene comes to mind), but most of it feels pretty standard issue. Everything; acting, camerawork, writing, is solid but there is little inspired here, little we’ve not seen before. At its best the film resembles Escape From Alcatraz, but that’s not entirely to its benefit, because it never meets that level and doesn’t really utilise some of the meatier political context available to distinguish itself from that or many other prison break movies.