Courtesy of Entertainment One
Based on the unbelievable true story and taking place at the center of the South African apartheid in the late 1970s,’ “Escape from Pretoria” details how a trio of political prisoners managed to hatch a plan and break out of Pretoria Central Prison in 1979. Directed by Francis Annan, “Pretoria” borrows its fair share of plot elements from the “prison-escape” genre, but it’s the execution and tension that saves the picture from falling into the bargain bin at the Dollar Tree.
Because, quite honestly, that’s what it feels like half the time: a wannabe “Shawshank Redemption” that tries to incorporate all the clichés and elements associated with doing hard time. The picture is more interested in showing the harsher side of prison life than it is exploring Tim Jenkin and Stephen Lee’s activism, but “Escape from Pretoria” at least knows how to build suspense where others do not.
The dynamic of the break out is what gives “Escape” a notable leg-up on its competition (looking at you “Escape Plan”) and it’s hard to ignore the fascination in watching the narrative unfold, particularly the logistics and lengths the prisoners are willing to go for freedom. Granted, it was a different era, there weren’t security cameras or the high-tech machinery like we have today, not to mention it wasn’t like the impoverished South African communities were funneling money into the prison system.
It’s refreshing to see Daniel Radcliffe front and center here (sporting a thick accent) playing Jenkin, the political activist who alongside good friend Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber), was arrested and convicted in Cape Town, 1979 for planting leaflet bombs that exploded with propaganda. Webber, probably best known for Netflix’s “The Dirt,” plays second fiddle to Radcliffe’s Jenkin who comes up with the idea to bust out of Pretoria by studying the prison lock system and constructing duplicate keys made entirely of wood.
Annan – who co-wrote the screenplay with L.H Adams – can’t help cranking up the tension in all the obvious areas (the prison escape always sounds good on paper, but you should always be prepared for obstacles) – though they don’t stoop so low that the story becomes over-the-top nonsense. In fact, it’s handled with a sense of realism and the narrative framing is effective when it needs to be. The South African accents are a bit wonky, and nobody can stop Nathan Page from hamming it up as the obligatory guard trying his best Clancy Brown impersonation. I was nonetheless impressed at the techniques used to bring this thrilling, albeit generic, adventure to life.
Escape from Pretoria opens in theaters and streams on demand starting March 6th 2020