Tense ‘Escape from Pretoria’ Overcomes Bland Performance

by Jonah Desneux on March 4, 2020

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Up]

Escape films attempt to inspire audiences by showing great feats of perseverance by those in a dire situation with nothing to lose. When I watch them I feel like the biggest loser on the planet because there is no way I’d be able to pull off anything on that grand of a scale. Escaping prison looks really really hard and I know I wouldn’t even know how to begin. I think I’d try and steal the guard’s key, but I’m not even sure I’d be able to turn it properly in one of those big metal locks.

Director and co-writer Francis Annan’s newest film Escape from Pretoria tells the true story of one of the most unbelievable prison escapes of all time. To the director and the film’s credit, I was never left envious of the characters’ wit and determination because I was too emotionally invested in rooting for their freedom. Even when the performances leave you wanting more, the gripping scenes that turn your stress level to one thousand and the pure motives of the characters make Escape from Pretoria the most captivating escape film in years.

Set in South Africa during apartheid, Escape from Pretoria tells the story of political activist Tim Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe) and Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber) from their arrest to their attempt to escape the Pretoria Central Prison. The men are arrested for “terrorism” in the form of distributing anti-apartheid pamphlets. In prison, the men look to escape not for their own freedom but to symbolize the resistance of their movement. There are fictional elements to the film, like the character Leonard (Mark Leonard Winter), a french freedom fighter prisoner who helps in the escape, but the film never betrays the impact of its authenticity by creating implausible scenes for the sake of drama. The greatest and most suspenseful points of the film derive from thrilling but empathetic moments. Hearts will pound and sweat will fall watching Radcliffe struggle with a lock, opposed to being taken out of realism with unnecessary action.

Escape from Pretoria is exhilarating throughout its runtime. Don’t watch expecting Shawshank-like scenes of men sitting around a table talking about their lives and what led them to prison. The plot of Escape from Pretoria focuses almost exclusively on the escape and the preparation for it. Leonard has powerful conversations with his son, giving his fictional character reason and the ability to represent all the individuals who lost their families fighting for their beliefs. Other than Leonard’s scenes that flirt with the melodramatic but are still quite impactful, the film’s pacing moves appropriately fast, giving worth to each scene. There is the occasional not-needed narration by Radcliffe, but it beats having any character break out into cheesy monologue, which is far too common in these types of films.

The lack of backstory for the central characters works surprisingly well for Radcliffe’s character Tim Jenkin but an issue for Webber’s Stephen Lee. The characters never lack substance as the film is clear with its intentions not focusing its efforts on being biographical. Annan shows the men as part of their greater cause as opposed to honoring them as individuals. Their heroic actions are celebrated and their willpower is honored, but their importance is rooted in the grand importance of their movement.

This approach works well with Radcliffe as he is the clearly star of the film. The sacrifice of personal recognition for the care of the cause allows the message of the film and the real mens’ actions to have a strong impact. The viewer is thrilled by Jenkin’s astonishing acts of ingenuity while growing attached more to his cause than his character. However, Webber’s character plays too much of a sidekick to warrant why he is as involved in the plans as he is. It can be assumed that in the actual prison escape that Lee was heavily involved, but in the film, his appearance and worth is far too sporadic. It feels like there was a lot more Webber in the original cut, but it all got shaved away in the editing room. It’s even shocking that he is featured side-by-side on the poster when the film is clearly the Radcliffe show.

The realism of the film is a massive strength in all aspects except for the lighting. The extreme low-key lighting is going for realism but creates an unnecessary hindrance to the viewer. I struggled too many times watching scenes I was invested in because of how dark the lighting was and how objects blurred together. The low-key lighting could have worked great wonders and an unrealistic bright prison at night would have been an unforgivable sin, but the lighting went a touch too dark making the experience more difficult than it needed to be.

Daniel Radcliffe’s performance in Escape from Pretoria is an anomaly. It’s an interesting experience watching a character overcome such exciting obstacles while the actor’s performance is as bland as it is. There are moments in the script where Radcliffe shows some charisma, while at other times he acts with no emotion at all. I don’t believe that this is any way of Radcliffe phoning the performance in, but whether it be a problem of direction or interpretation the performance is so dry you want it to go to the beach on a rainy day and chug five gallons of water.

Jonah Desneux

Jonah Desneux is a recent graduate from the University of Missouri with a BA in Film Studies. It’s baffling that someone who just spent four years writing film paper after film paper would immediately want to write some more, but hey, he must love it! Along with writing about film Jonah enjoys writing and performing sketch comedy in Columbia and Kansas City.

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