‘Escape From Pretoria’ is a Tightrope Walk Between Terror and Hope

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Films about prison escapes are usually in the spirit of fantasy, of the lone man triumphing against the evil establishment that dares steal their freedom. It appears rather odd to advertise Escape From Pretoria as a thriller given the context, as if selling the film is more important than the context and true story it dramatises. The era of Apartheid is not only a long period in South Africa’s history, but a very recent one as well. The late Nelson Mandela was only released from prison in 1990. Escape From Pertoria takes Tim Jenkin’s autobiography and transforms it into a heart wrenching, tense tale of human spirit. 

Tim Jenkin is an anti-apartheid activist, writer and former political prisoner, who is known for his work with the ANC (African National Congress) and his escape from Pretoria Local Prison. The film follows Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe) and fellow activist Stephen Bernard Lee (Daniel Webber) planting leaflet bombs in a busy town centre. Within minutes of the explosions they are both arrested and sentenced to 12 years and 8 years respectively. But these two men have no intention of serving their time, and the second they arrive in the prison they set about analysing every inch of their environment to devise a foolproof escape plan. Their weapon of choice: keys. Wooden keys carved in secret in the prison’s workshop, one for every door they need to conquer the barriers between their cells and the outside world. 

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The film opens with some 1.33:1 news footage and a foreboding voice-over from Radcliffe, and it’s the best his South African accent gets as he describes the world in which Jenkin grew up. A world in which “ Half of South Africa was in flames. The police were shooting black kids like rabbits. Whilst the other half sipped Piña Coladas on their whites-only beaches”. The reality of 1970s South Africa boiled down to a single sentence. As the voice-over progresses the image opens out to a 2.35:1 frame revealing Jenkin carrying two oversized plastic bags. It thrusts the audience right into that moment, into the danger of their endeavour. Although one can’t help but wonder if there are perhaps more dangerous situations than a white South African planting a pamphlet bomb.

From here we move quickly onto their trial and land in Pretoria Local Prison, a grim place filled with barred windows, concrete slabs for walls, and guards who vary from sadistic right through to stereotypically incompetent. Director Francis Annan wastes no time in establishing the monochromatic, unforgiving world that keeps our characters trapped. The days move with a rhythmic monotony punctuated by Radcliffe’s voice-over describing their incredibly intricate escape plan and how it hinges on the cracks in the prison regime. 

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However there is an overriding sense that the film is more preoccupied with being a high-stakes, nail biting prison escape than addressing its context. Films about apartheid are far rarer than films about the civil rights movement, but the parallels are terrifying. There are moments such as Jenkin’s experiments with unlocking his cell and travelling through the prison at night that are filled with so much tension it is impossible to look away. Annan is a master of tension and makes the audience want the escape just as much as the prisoners, but one can’t help but ask if this is entirely appropriate? 

Nevertheless, Escape to Pertoria is a well-crafted film, which provides something for those interested in this period context but is also a strong prison escape thriller. The performances by Ian Hart and Radcliffe must be praised, although Hart had a much better grasp of the South African accent. It is heartening to see Radcliffe prove again and again that he is an actor in his own right. Francis Annan gave himself a challenge with this project and it appears to just about pay off, and could even pave the way for further films about such a harrowing, hidden period of history. These stories are necessary to address the past and remind us that “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it”.

Escape From Pretoria is released in cinemas on March 6th

by Mia Garfield

Mia Garfield has just finished a degree in Film at Falmouth University. She has just finished her first short ‘Sonder’, keep an eye out for it at festivals in the UK. A big lover of Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and Mythology, her taste is varied. Her favourite films include Howl’s Moving Castle, Memoirs of A Geisha, How to Train Your Dragon, and Big Hero 6. You can find her @miajulianna2864

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