Director: Francis Annan
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Daniel Webber, Mark Leonard Winter, Nathan Page and Ian Hart
Run time: 1h 46min
South Africa in the 1970s. Apartheid is in full swing. White citizens are afforded the highest status, followed by Asians, coloureds (a multiracial ethnic group native to South Africa who have ancestry from more than one of the various populations of the region) and black Africans. Tim Jenkin (Radcliffe) and Stephen Lee (Webber) are white South Africans united in their determination to bring about the end of Apartheid and so join the prohibited African National Congress group, running anti-apartheid missions doggedly fighting for freedom and equality for all races.
When the pair are caught and arrested for distributing propaganda on behalf of banned organisations, they’re promptly sent to Pretoria Political Prison for White Men with sentences of 12 and eight years, respectively. Inside, they meet fellow activists Denis Goldberg (Hart) and Leonard Fontaine (Winter) and together, they plot their escape because some birds aren’t meant to be caged.
After making his name playing arguably the most famous wizard of all time, Daniel Radcliffe’s film choices have hardly been predictable. Shunning more commercially viable options, he gravitates (or perhaps it’s apparates) towards more quirky and unusual projects and Escape from Pretoria is no different. Inspired by the true events of what happened behind those notorious bars in December 1979, it’s surprising that this remarkable story of audacity and ingenuity isn’t more widely known.
Using a set of hand-carved wooden keys, painstakingly forged by Jenkin, the men attempt their getaway under the cover of darkness and must negotiate numerous obstacles along the way. Of course, things don’t go to plan which forces them to improvise and rely on blind luck to not get caught. Director Francis Annan creates some nerve-shredding moments of tension and keeps the pace zipping along nicely, although peripheral characters are glossed over with some seeming to appear out of nowhere thus making an emotional connection difficult.
Filmed in a real prison, solitude, coldness and desperation ooze from the walls of the long grey corridors and the solid steel doors whilst there are some cleverly filmed sequences where the camera replaces a key in a lock to perform a 360 degree turn. South African accents slip every now and then, but there’s no faulting the energy and commitment by all involved.
The brutality of life in jail is watered down too much due to the confines of a 12A certificate, but Nathan Page’s sadistic prison guard exudes menace in a memorable performance that deserved more screen time. He revels in his supposed superior status, appalled that white people could want to help the lowly black race. Radcliffe holds the film together well with a determined intensity to get the job done, but Mark Leonard Winter has the most interesting journey as a father desperately missing his young family.
Escape from Pretoria is an intriguing and often astonishing story of daring, bravery and friendship and although it occasionally lacks depth, this long walk to freedom is well worth watching.
Escape from Pretoria opens in UK cinemas from March 6th.