Francis Annan (director)
06 March 2020 (released)
03 March 2020
The troubled history of South Africa during apartheid has inspired many, many book, films, songs and music. Tom Sharpe, Peter Gabriel and Richard Attenborough are but a few of very, very many. The focus is shifting now and there are plenty of stories to be told about the country in its current state, and no doubt they will. In the meantime the apartheid period of history still has stories to offer.
Escape From Pretoria is about two white ANC activists Tim Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe) and Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber) who in 1973 after a setting off small explosives intended to shower propaganda leaflets rather than injure, are caught and tried as terrorists. They are given long sentences and sent to the maximum-security and notorious Pretoria prison which houses other white activists.
They were never expecting an easy ride but the harsh regime they encounter is on another level with prisoners designated through the colour of their shirts as political or other. That with the brutality of the guards who see them as little more than terrorists and sympathisers.
However they begin to settle into the routine and find that even with the white ANC activist prisoners there are differences in their philosophy with some such as Denis Goldberg (Ian Hart), one of the most powerful and respected activists, believing that incarceration for their beliefs sends out more powerful message than any escape. They are convinced it would be counter-productive and impossible anyway. This isn’t the line that Jenkin and Lee agree with and with Leonard Fontaine (Mark Leonard Winter) a French activist who is fraying mentally being only allowed to see his son once a year, begin to plot.
Needless to say as this is based on fact and Jenkin’s biography, the story is already out there. But it is worth holding back on any details as the escape is so clever and audacious that knowing nothing is the best way to approach. If you are familiar (I wasn’t) I would think you’ll find it as gripping.
And it is in the acting, and accents, where there’s a certain stodginess and drift respectively. Radcliffe’s tightly wound hirsute features flatter to look hard but ultimately lack gravitas. Webber fares a little better but any real sense of passion and desperation is supplied by Leonard Winter playing a character who never existed (Alex Moumbaris was actually the third escapee).
Director Francis Annan – who co-wrote this with L.H. Adams - has crafted a perfectly good prison drama which carries many of the tropes that these things have with vicious guards and violent inmates. There are a few flourishes with plenty of keys inserted in to locks and the mechanism clicking away. By and large though it trundles along nicely until he rachets up the tension in the third act.