Over the decades, the world of cinema has been enriched by works inspired by South Africa’s austere sociopolitical timeline. The savagery and military corruption of the Boer War was enshrined in the superb 1980 courtroom drama Breaker Morant, Apartheid has been dissected and vilified in iconic fight-for-justice dramas such as Cry Freedom and A Dry White Season (along with wackier but no less effective interpretations like District 9), and the dumbfoundingly ballsy true-life exploits of a sociopathic policeman were immortalised in the underrated Stander. For such a beautiful landscape, it can be argued that its history is antithetically ugly, and it hasn’t even been thirty years since the national power structure shifted from longtime, rampant and unaccountable authoritarianism into the more humanistic and democratic system that has been steadily building since the early 90s. Escape From Pretoria, the latest offering from Francis Annan, is a welcome addition in that regard, a long-overdue dramatisation of the daring and ingenious one-fingered salute that three brave individuals flipped to this barbaric system.
Tim Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe) & Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber) are two twentysomething white South Africans working as operatives for the African National Congress. Orchestrating the detonation of so-called ‘leaflet bombs’, a mild and relatively harmless explosive device that litters the streets with left-wing, anti-Apartheid political pamphlets, they quickly attract the ire of the Cape Town police. While in reality the two were held in custody for three months and ruthlessly interrogated before a trial actually commenced, the film forgoes this interim period, jumping almost immediately to their sentencing, Jenkin and Lee receiving 12 and 8 years, respectively. With a surreptitiously placed parting gift of some expensive cigars from his black girlfriend Daphne, Jenkin and his brother-in-arms are hauled off to begin their stretch at the titular hellhole, South Africa’s notorious Pretoria Central Prison.
As they endure squalid conditions and the sadistic, intolerant attitude of the guards, Jenkin & Lee become acquainted with other charismatic and uncompromising detainees who rebelled against the state, namely the older, more cynical and hard-bitten activist Denis Goldberg (Harry Potter alumni Ian Hart, as a decidedly more benevolent yet obstreperous personality than Professor Quirrell) and passionate French expatriate Leonard Fontaine (Mark Leonard Winter). As the four of them become closer, alternately bickering, philosophising and reminiscing about outside life, Jenkin is relentless in his insistence that they formulate a plan to escape. As usual, even the most cursory exposition of this plan would veer into unforgivable spoiler territory, but you can be assured that it is a remarkably clever and tightly-written scheme that involves meticulous environmental study and craftsmanship in place of the usual distraction and rioting tropes. It’s also something these men actually did, further cementing the notion that truth can indeed be stranger (and smarter and more badass) than fiction.
In regards to the pros of the work, the performances are consistently authentic and strong all-round, with pleasingly sharp character development, considering that the audience are thrown into the deep end of the two leads’ focal custodial woes from the outset. Radcliffe brings a taciturn, furtive intensity to his performance as Jenkin, communicating the man’s vigilance and quiet intelligence and providing a robust antidote to the stereotype of the academically-minded having soft constitutions or lacking common sense. He also manages to nail the accent rather nicely, due in no small part to the real Jenkin being present on set and giving him pointers on dialect and his specific mental state at particular points in the narrative. Another standout is Australian actor Nathan Page as Mongo, the physically intimidating and consummately unpleasant guard captain who delights in terrorising the inmates with violence and psychological cruelty. His laconic gruffness and complete deficiency in empathy make him terrifyingly symbolic of the worst extremes of the nation’s prison system and wider societal pathologies.
In spite of its worthy acting and grippingly executed central conceit, Escape From Pretoria treads ground that is all-too-familiar in terms of films that depict prison life and/or escape plans. There are the requisite formulas of friendship-enmity cycles amongst the main protagonists, standardly-written diatribes of doubt thrown on Jenkin’s increasingly dare-devilish machinations, fairly predictable (although well-shot and effective) suspense sequences, and guards who appear to be impossibly stupid as to not notice the group’s suspicious and secretive body language at any given time. It might seem a little counterintuitive to make these citations as the film is merely depicting events that happened in reality, but in the context of artwork, it, unfortunately, dips its toes in the waters of one-dimensionality and awkward dialogue enough to prevent it from being a superb film. But, does the movie suffer overall from these setbacks? I would say no, actually. They’re ultimately easy to forgive, which is an impressive feat to accomplish in and of itself.
While it may not rank among the greats, Escape From Pretoria is nevertheless a thought-provoking, tense and moving drama. With a thrillingly intelligent albeit flawed script and great performances, it is a sobering examination of that vital universal tie that binds most human beings together: zest for life and courage in the face of unfeeling tyranny and injustice. I may not feel the inclination to rush out and see it again, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t do the fist-pumps and get the throat-lumps by the time the tale’s incredible denouement rolled around. Certainly isn’t that often that portraits of real-life heroes bestow that gift upon you, and for that reason, I’d recommend a saunter down the screen.