Based on a true story, prison break drama Escape From Pretoria sees Daniel Radcliffe give one of his best performances to date. He plays Tim Jenkin, one of a group of white South African men imprisoned for protesting against apartheid in the 1970s. Their actions involved nothing more violent than distributing pamphlets, but the government’s zero-tolerance stance on dissent meant Jenkin was given a 12-year sentence. He made sure he only spent a fraction of that time behind bars.
In the film, Jenkin’s plan for escape is simple but absurd. He will make wooden keys, copied from the originals by observing the guards using the keys each day and then, well, just giving it a go. He’ll use those keys to unlock every door in the prison and walk out the front entrance. Even more absurdly, it works, though obviously not without complication.
Up-and-coming British director Francis Annan is straightforward in his approach. He chooses to focus on the mechanics of the escape, rather than the men escaping. He ratchets up some very clammy tension as Jenkin perfects his methods. As Jenkin loses keys, snaps keys, or struggles to find a hiding spot before the guards spot him, the soundtrack is heavy with panicked breathing and the scenes tightly edited to make you feel as jittery as possible. It boils down to a lot of variations on the same sequence – a desperate game of hide and seek – but they’re all executed very well.
Radcliffe gets very little dialogue to work with – you don’t talk a lot while trying to evade detection – but his face tells us everything we need to know. His big eyes turn in a hell of a performance. His South African twang takes a few detours via Wales and north London, but it’s far from the shakiest on screen (Ian Hart, as a veteran protestor, gives us an accent from… we’re not exactly sure).
Given the effectiveness of the escape scenes, it’s a pity there’s little character-work around them. We learn only the bare minimum about Jenkin and his motivations. His life before prison is largely a mystery. Colleague David (Daniel Webber) is given so little depth he’s basically a glorified extra, despite being second on the bill. For the most part, Escape From Pretoria works well, but it’s a shame Annan didn’t take more time to dig into the ordinary men who made this extraordinary escape.
- Director: Francis Annan
- Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Ian Hart, Daniel Webber
- Release date: March 6