In 1978, two anti-apartheid activists were arrested and taken to Pretoria Local Prison. They were jailed for distributing pamphlets on behalf of banned organisations, including the African National Congress (ANC).
Escape from Pretoria tells the anxiety-inducing true story of Tim Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe) and Stephen Lee’s (Daniel Webber) prison escape, and how they spent many months planning how to do it.
Something that immediately impressed me about this film was how well Daniel Radcliffe took to the role. Once again he’s proved he’s able to tackle a serious subject matter, and that he’s not just Harry Potter.
He impressed as an undercover FBI agent in 2016’s Imperium, and he’s done it again in Escape from Pretoria as a political prisoner. I was very convinced by his role, and thought he did a brilliant job bringing Jenkin and his story to life on-screen.
Jenkin is fuelled by his political views, making it no surprise that he wants to escape from a justice system that wronged him. The way he goes about this is fascinating, and sometimes frustrating, to witness.
Whilst he’s ultimately the ring leader of this escape plan, he doesn’t do it alone. His ‘partner in crime’ Lee helps him, and their dynamic helps to keep up the pace of the film to stop it from becoming repetitive or dull.
Daniel Webber is equally as good alongside Radcliffe, and the two make a very compelling on-screen duo. As an audience member, you’re with them every step of the way and you want them to get their freedom.
They’re soon joined by French prisoner Leonard Fontaine (Mark Leonard Winter), who is also tired of the injustice and the fact he’s only allowed to see his young son once a year. Although he thinks the idea is “crazy”, he’s in.
There’s plenty of prison escape films out there, but Escape from Pretoria is still a solid entry into the genre. There are scenes that had me on the edge of my seat, as it knows exactly how to build suspense.
It’s even funny in places, providing some much-needed yet appropriate comic relief, mainly in the form of characters bickering with each other during the escape. The dialogue is great, and the film has many memorable lines for me.
A lot of Escape from Pretoria is shot from their perspective, meaning you have no clue when a guard is going to come round the corner and it’s game over. As a result you’re constantly on edge, hoping they’re stealthy enough to not be detected.
The film doesn’t shy away from the horrors of apartheid, with many of its supporters being openly abusive to anyone who dares challenge the regime. As the films antagonists, the guards that constantly patrol the prison are brilliantly acted and strike fear wherever they go.
I was particularly fearful of Captain Schnepel (Grant Piro), an incredibly abusive prison guard who had no regard for those he’d locked away. He isn’t on screen much, but when he is you feel uncomfortable just watching his behaviour.
This is an important piece of filmmaking from a historical point of view, as it really examines how badly white South Africans were treated if they showed any form of solidarity with black members of their community.
In the film, Jenkin says, “Unless we got up from our privileged white lives and did something, our words were meaningless”. This quote alone provides so much insight into him as a character, and just how hard he’s willing to work to bring about change.
The story of their escape is a fascinating one, and I’m happy that writer-director Francis Annan decided to tell it on-screen. At face value, it seems impossible to escape from such a heavily guarded prison, but the plan they execute is a genius one. It’s a very entertaining film that also provides essential social commentary.
Interestingly, Tim Jenkin himself makes a cameo as a prisoner in the film, which seems like a brilliant way to stick it to the regime one last time. He escaped and lived to tell the tale.
Directed by: Francis Annan
Written by: Francis Annan
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Ian Hart, Daniel Webber, Mark Leonard Winter