Escape from Pretoria review: True-life prison thriller makes an ideal everyman out of Daniel Radcliffe

The actor plays Tim Jenkin, a real-life political prisoner during apartheid-era South Africa, who made a daring escape in 1979

Clarisse Loughrey@clarisselou
Wednesday 04 March 2020 19:38
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Escape from Pretoria trailer

Dir: Francis Annan. Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Daniel Webber, Ian Hart, Mark Leonard Winter, Nathan Page. 12A cert, 106 mins

In Escape from Pretoria, Daniel Radcliffe does everything he can to hide away the face of the Boy Who Lived. His forehead, once marked by a lightning-bolt scar, is now buried under a swell of thick, sweat-matted curls. A beard covers one half of his face. Oversized, clear plastic glasses take over the other. And then there’s the accent: a South African twang that occasionally slips and slides into other nations. The world of wands and wizards is now only a distant memory. Here, he’s in the role of Tim Jenkin, a real-life political prisoner during apartheid-era South Africa, who made a daring escape from his cell at Pretoria Local Prison, the whites-only equivalent to Robben Island, in 1979.

His methods were meticulous – this wasn’t Steve McQueen and his motorcycle vaulting over barbed wire fences. Day by day, week by week, Jenkin carved his own set of keys out of wood scraps, all carefully hidden from view of the guards. Director Francis Annan, who co-wrote the script with LH Adams, is clearly entranced by the mechanics of it, crafting an intricate and studiously plotted film in return. The escape itself takes up a majority of the runtime, as Jenkin puts himself through a rigorous process of trial and error. He’ll break himself out of his cell only to lock himself up again, waiting until he’s certain there’s a clear path out of the prison gates and on to freedom. That cyclical process is what makes Escape from Pretoria tick. It steadily builds its tension, culminating in a heart-pounding sequence in which Jenkin tries to rescue a key he dropped outside of his cell with nothing but a stick and a piece of gum. Radcliffe is subdued but committed, lending an ideal everyman quality to Jenkin. It’s a real display of the actor’s talent.

In the hands of cinematographer Geoffrey Hall, Pretoria becomes a labyrinth of iron bars and closed doors. Its prisoners are corralled into tiny, cramped frames. Sometimes, the camera peers through the keyhole and into the uncertain world that lies on the other side. Jenkin comes into conflict with Denis Goldberg (Ian Hart), who was tried and jailed at the same time as Mandela. While Goldberg thinks of their imprisonment as symbolic (“We’re prisoners of conscience,” he argues), Jenkin sees it as submitting to the will of the government (“We’re prisoners of war,” he retorts).

But it’s hard to feel the impact of those statements when the film dedicates so little time to establish what drives Jenkin’s political consciousness. The film instead dives straight into the incident he was arrested for: a non-lethal leaflet-bombing protest done in support of the African National Congress. He was arrested alongside his long-time friend and compatriot Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber).

Jenkin and Lee both escaped together, accompanied by Egyptian-Australian activist Alex Moumbaris. Here, Moumbaris has been replaced with the fictional Leonard Fontaine (Mark Leonard Winter), whose character exists solely to drum up empathy for the prisoners’ plight. The film doesn’t focus on the brutality hidden by Pretoria’s walls, choosing instead to channel it into one cruel, inhumane act. Fontaine is a father, but is only allowed to see his young son for half an hour every year – unless the guards decide on a whim to cut his time short. It’s heartbreaking to watch, but sheds little light on who these men are and how they fit into the wider anti-apartheid struggle. Escape from Pretoria never dares to imagine what lies beyond the prison walls.

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