In 1979, after carrying out a number of anti-apartheid missions in South Africa, Tim Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe) and Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber) are arrested. They get sent to Pretoria Prison, and in spite of being advised that escape is impossible, they start to plan how they will break out. Tim figures out the (literal) key to their getaway.
The underrated Irish drama ‘Maze’ aside, we haven’t had a good prison escape drama along the lines of ‘The Great Escape’, ‘Escape from Alcatraz’, or (the most famous example) ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ in a number of years now. In ‘Escape from Pretoria’, Francis Annan establishes an effective pace and some gripping sequences. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly worth a watch.
One of its shortcomings, arguably, is that the context of apartheid in South Africa isn’t particularly delved into. The drama of the incarceration and momentum of the escape are the focus, even though the characters’ motivations are political.
In the lead role, Daniel Radcliffe has well and truly moved away from ‘Harry Potter’ (though it is fun to see him back in glasses again). As Tim Jenkin, he is excellent, a kind of everyman type that works in the context, though, unfortunately, his South African accent is inconsistent.
Daniel Webber’s performance doesn’t add much but Mark Leonard Winter steals every scene he stars in as Leonard Fontaine. Ian Hart as Denis Goldberg doesn’t feature a great deal either, again because the political backdrop of the story isn’t the focal point.
The second half of the feature is stronger than the first, so if you feel yourself fading, you’ll want to hang in there. There's an excellent scene involving chewing gum, which is super intense, followed by another intense moment involving a closet, and another following a clear out of the prisoners’ cells. Annan shows skilful direction in such sequences, the performers sweating it out, and their terrified, quick-thinking, scheming manners proving captivating.
Then there are a couple of moments where the characters stall in their process, and you'll want to scream at the screen, “what the heck are you doing?! Keep going!!” Such an emotive response proves the film really does work as you root for the characters to break out and be reunited with their loved ones.
'Escape from Pretoria' streams on Amazon Prime from Friday, 26 February.