Directed by: Francis Annan
Premise: Based on true events. Set in 1970s South Africa, two anti-apartheid activists (Daniel Radcliffe and Daniel Webber) are sentenced to Pretoria Prison for sedition. With the help of another political prisoner, they plan their escape.
What Works: Escape from Pretoria is a prison break story and the film is at its best when it focuses on the ingenuity of the inmates as they plot their escape. The filmmakers throw themselves and the characters into the details of their plan. Stories are generally about characters who have a goal and the obstacles they overcome to achieve it; that goal and the obstacles between it and the protagonists are concrete in Escape from Pretoria and the filmmakers effectively dramatize the intricate steps taken to get from bondage to freedom. We’re disposed to be on the side of these characters from the opening; they are fighting a just cause and the severity of their sentences is grossly disproportionate to their offenses. But the filmmakers keep working on the audience’s emotional investment in the characters. Tim Jenkins and Stephen Lee, played by Daniel Radcliffe and Daniel Webber, as well as Leonard Fontaine, played by Mark Leonard Winter, suffer indignities at the hands of the guards and put a great deal of effort into testing and refining their escape plan. The focus on the character’s efforts effectively invests the viewer in their success; observing their struggle makes us want to see them succeed and Escape from Pretoria has some very tense sequences as the characters work toward freedom.
What Doesn’t: Escape from Pretoria practically invites a cynical reaction; this story about the injustices of South African apartheid focuses on three white characters. This is a red flag and viewers cannot be blamed for approaching the film with some suspicion. And indeed, black characters are almost entirely absent from Escape from Pretoria; the few characters of color are relegated to one-dimensional roles. However, the bulk of the movie takes place in a prison in a racially segregated society and shoehorning characters of color into the movie would probably have come across forced and false. That, and the fact that the protagonists were actively fighting apartheid, ought to spare Escape from Pretoria from the ire of the political correctness brigade. That said, the film doesn’t say much about apartheid. It offers a story of political prisoners incarcerated in a police state but there’s little distinguishing life in Pretoria from incarceration anywhere else. On that score, Escape from Pretoria plays as a generic prison break story.
DVD extras: Interviews, deleted scene, behind-the-scenes footage.
Bottom Line: Escape from Pretoria is a satisfying prison break story. The movie doesn’t reveal much about the nature of incarceration or the history of apartheid but it is an effective and exciting thriller.
Episode: #830 (December 13, 2020)