Escape From Pretoria is the latest film where Daniel Radcliffe is trying to get away from Harry Potter—not quite as successfully as Robert Pattinson has done, but he’s doing his best by taking riskier parts in independent films. This is probably one of the better parts he’s had, helped by the fact that it’s great story.
Shot in Australia, Escape From Pretoria is a first major feature for Francis Annan, who also co-wrote the script. It’s based on the book by Tim Jenkin, who is played here by Radcliffe. Jenkin and Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber) are young white anti-apartheid activists in 1970s South Africa who created “leaflet bombs” that could spread anti-apartheid pamphlets. They are arrested and prosecuted, with Jenkins getting 12 years while Jenkins is sentenced to eight. They are then transported to Pretoria Prison, where they meet Denis Goldberg, who was the third person in the Rivonia Trial that also prosecuted Nelson Mandela for conspiring to overthrow the state through sabotage. Goldberg shows them the ropes about the prison, but discourages them from escaping. However, Jenkin and Lee have other plans, despite the fact that it’s a high-security facility.
They figure out a way to escape involving Jenkin making multiple keys out of stolen bits of wood from the prison woodshop. The crux of the movie is basically the two of them honing their plan, their test runs, and eventually their quite daring escape.
It’s a solid movie, if not a great one—there’s not much to it other than the escape, you don’t get to know the two leads that much along the way, and that character background and development is an area that the film could have gone more into. About all we know about Jenkin’s background and views is a shot where you see he has drawn a picture of Karl Marx. It would have been great, for example, to include the scene from the book where Jenkin’s father visits him in jail and gives him a copy of Papillon—that kind of thing would have added more texture to the characters.
There’s definitely a shade here of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, which is probably the best prison-escape movie ever made—it’s clear that Bresson’s film was a major inspiration, but Escape From Pretoria doesn’t quite have its pulsating energy, which takes you into the prisoner’s mind from the start.
Radcliffe is pretty good, and the world of the prison is well-realised, although it’s clear that there wasn’t a ton of money behind the film. Ian Hart as Goldberg works well, and Webber is also good –it’s the first thing I’ve seen him in since his turn as Vince Neil in the ridiculous Netflix Mötley Crüe biopic.
The film is definitely worth seeing, presenting a story worth telling—and the escape sequence is actually pretty great. The disc includes interviews with the cast, the director and Tim Jenkin.