Written by: Robin C. Farrell | March 5th, 2020
Escape from Pretoria (Francis Annan, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.
While I didn’t come to Escape from Pretoria with an especially keen knowledge of the central figures, I did bring with me a hefty amount of apprehension. The trailer gave me the impression that the film would be brutal: heavy on physical and psychological torture; a deep look into the conditions of the time, regarding apartheid; and then a harrowing escape attempt. Not quite.
Based on Tim Jenkin’s book Inside Out: Escape from Pretoria Central Prison, the film does follow Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe) and Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber), two anti-apartheid activists, and their attempt to escape the white-only Pretoria Local Prison in 1979, but the film’s primary interest and focus is the intimate, moment-to-moment suspense, which makes up the bulk of the story with little time to spare for much else. This is not an expert delve into race relations, nor a daring exposé or keen look into history. Strangely, I was reminded of Lincoln (2012), in that the story here is far more of a specific moment in specific lives, rather than a comprehensive historical examination of South Africa’s apartheid days or the complexity of the politics therein. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Despite the many and vast differences between Escape from Pretoria and The Great Escape (1963), they share something of a similar spirit; you will find yourself engrossed in the characters’ plight whether you know the history or not.
The film opens with a brutal, sweeping punch of archival footage to set the stage and offer swift context, then pivots into a far more intimate tone. Moments that shine most effectively are small, crucial beats that play out in real-time or – even better – when they feel agonizingly stretched across full sequences, all in the best possible way. Those moments happen often; they are the foundation and thrust of the film. Even when you think there can’t possibly be any more nail-biting scenes left, where the tension cannot be prolonged any further, another twist follows that still manages to work. The pacing is excellent and builds masterfully to every moment of tension.
The film bears few flaws, but among them is the spotty use of voiceover (VO). Granted, it’s effective when used, but, like a lot of VO, there’s not much consistency to it and the story would have been better off either without it entirely or with more of it at more consistent intervals, including the ending to match the intro. The inmates’ perspective is strictly adhered to and the film doesn’t cheat by cutting away, beyond the prison walls. This is admirable on one hand, but on the other, it means that the film occasionally does a fair share of telling/not showing regarding their motivation for escape in the first place. When we’re reminded of it through dialogue, the protagonists debate what they’re fighting for and argue over the morality of an escape attempt. These conferences drift a little towards the idealistic and away from the hyper-realism that permeates the rest of the movie.
The silent, wordless moments are filled with heavy, panicked breathing and the echoes of even the smallest sound. The sound design, mixing, and editing are just as much stars of this thing as the actors themselves. And the actors – led by Daniel Radcliffe (Beast of Burden) – do deliver seamless performances that evoke an almost uncomfortable physicality. I continue to be impressed with Radcliffe. Curiously, this film reunites him with Ian Hart (Mary Queen of Scots), a fellow Harry Potter alum. As an avid fan of that franchise, I was surprised that I didn’t think of that once while watching the film; not even with Radcliffe bedecked in glasses! They work wonderfully together as two people fighting for the same thing but with opposing methods. Both in the performances and in the writing, you can see them struggling and desperately hoping the other will see sense and stop their foolishness. As a viewer, I genuinely wasn’t sure who to side with half the time; the threat of failure looms too terribly large. But the thought of sitting idle, waiting out the sentence? Unthinkable.
The film does manage to find ways to bring in the continued strife of the outside world in the only ways it probably can, but I sense a lurking goal from the filmmakers to have their cake and eat it, too. At its center, the movie is about activism, centered on a person deeply tied to the fight being fought at the time. Jenkin is referred to as the “White Mandela,” and explicitly states, “We’re prisoners of war,” but we really see very little of that war beyond the first few minutes. But is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. In fact, it may very well be the point. While Escape from Pretoria is a sophisticated nail-biter that thrives on the small moments, it also manages to convey a quiet, underlying message throughout both the silences and dialogue. There’s a call to action here: to stand up for what’s right however you can; step out from safe and secure comfort zones. It might seem like a long shot, like an impossibility, and it is an enormous risk, but there is a chance that we can win together, and the reward is worth it.