It seems like a small lifetime ago that Daniel Radcliffe was known only as the young wizard Harry Potter. Since those magical days, Radcliffe has worked hard to carve a career out of the ashes of being a teen heartthrob and the face of a huge movie franchise. So far, so good.
Radcliffe has certainly become a much more serious actor, trying his hand at different genres and different filmmakers. Now, he’s moved onto the infamous game of playing real people. It’s a slippery slope and while Radcliffe still has ways to go, he turns in a fine performance in Francis Annan’s Escape From Pretoria.
Radcliffe plays Tim Jenkin, a South African political activist who is detained and sent to Pretoria prison at the height of the apartheid. Jenkin, along with his accomplice Stephen Lee and a new acquittance Leonard Fontaine, is desperate to escape the prison and begins to hatch a plan to do so.
Escape From Pretoria is based on real events, but there’s constantly a sense of “this can’t be real” which makes the film all the more thrilling. Of course, some artistic liberties have been taken to make things just a tiny bit more dramatic and interesting but even the bare bones of this escape story are exciting enough.
While the beginning of the film will have you believe this is a serious drama, something of a politically engaged film, the rest couldn’t be more different. It’s not that Escape From Pretoria isn’t a serious film, but it’s just a much more conventional prison break film than it leads you to believe in its opening scenes. But a prison break film this truly is and a very entertaining one too.
The visual look of the film and the use of old school split screens (spot the slightly blurry line dividing the screen) give it that scruffy, slightly dirty 70s/80s look and gives the traditional narrative a little edge. Geoffrey Hall’s inventive cinematography keeps the camera moving and he utilises plenty of tight closeups while Nick Fenton’s tight editing creates tension and makes you chew on your fingernails while sweating bullets.
Daniel Radcliffe is believable if a little bland as Jenkin. This is much more a film about the story, the madness of the method, than about the character. While Jenkin comes across as defiant and brilliant, the film’s real pull is the whole operation itself rather than the political activist behind it. Daniel Webber and Mark Leonard Winter offer good support as the other two prison breakers and Ian Hart is a pleasant surprise in a supporting role that is far too small for such an exciting and talented actor.
Escape From Pretoria works magnificently well as a traditional escape movie, it’s riveting and never outstays its welcome, knowing exactly how to pace its story and when to bow out. Its biggest misstep is the beginning and selling the film as anything else than a straightforward prison break film. There’s nothing wrong with leaving politics out of your film, especially if you don’t truly engage with them.
Something as serious as apartheid would have required more time and attention to become a part of the film. Perhaps if the film focused on Jenkin’s past more Escape From Pretoria could have been more heavily infused with the politics of the time, but here it feels a little misjudged and awkward, not to mention another apartheid-set film from the perspective of a white man.
The film also trips over its overly cartoonish depiction of the prison guards. While it works narratively and certainly adds entertainment value, it cheapens the film ever so slightly. As it’s based on real events, real people, it would have been nice to see more fully-rounded, complex villains here. It makes the film seem a tad childish and takes away the excitement that stems from the fact that these crazy events all happened, more or less at least.
But as a gripping, hair-raising thriller, Escape From Pretoria is still an excellent throwback to the films that made many of us fall in love with the genre. The film benefits from its incredibly detailed production design and it’s a remarkably confident and impressive debut feature-length film for director Annan. Rarely can a director assert so much control and style with their debut, but Annan has it in spades and dishes it out generously, making Escape From Pretoria a worthy addition to the packed genre of prison break films.
Dir: Francis Annan
Scr: Francis Annan, L.H. Adams
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Daniel Webber, Ian Hart, Mark Leonard Winter
Prd: David Barron, Mark Blaney, Gary Hamilton, Michelle Krumm, Jackie Sheppard
DOP: Geoffrey Hall
Music: David Hirschfelder
Country: UK / Australia
Run time: 106 min
Escape From Pretoria is in cinemas 6th of March.