Escape From Pretoria


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Escape From Pretoria
"This is a thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat but that also has something going on upstairs." | Photo: Glasgow Film Festival

How does 13% of a country’s population keep most of the rest in a state of subjugation? Force of arms was part of it, certainly, but it also hinged on the maintenance of apathy and despair: most people were persuaded that they would personally suffer if they revelled and that nothing would ever change. Breaking out of this mindset in sufficient numbers depended upon an accumulation of individual acts of daring. The audacious escape plan hatched by young researcher Tim Jenkin after he was sent to Pretoria Local Prison in 1978 was one of these, and Francis Annan’s tight thriller brings it to life.

Closely based on Jenkin’s autobiography, the film, which stars Daniel Radcliffe in the central role, opens with the leaflet bombings that originally brought the activist to the attention of the authorities – incidents in which small explosives were used not to injure but to fill busy shopping streets with pamphlets containing anti-Apartheid messages. Plunged into the thick of things, the viewer has only a brief glimpse of his life on the outside, his job at the University of the Western Cape, the girlfriend (played by Ratidzo Mambo) whom he is forced to keep secret, before he and fellow bomber Stephen Lee (played by Daniel Webber) are seized by the police and locked up in what was known as ‘the white Robben Island’. It’s a dizzying experience which sets us up to be more strongly impacted by the desperate sameness of life inside.

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Though nowhere near as rough as what was inflicted on black prisoners at the time, the treatment doled out in Pretoria Local could be vicious and was often intentionally cruel. Annan is sparing in his depiction of brutality, understanding that what we imagine is more powerful than what we see directly. The biggest emotional impact in the early scenes comes when we learn that fellow prisoner Leonard Fontaine (Mark Leonard Winter) is permitted to see his young son for only half an hour a year, with the constant threat that eve that ‘privilege’ will be taken away. Unsurprisingly, when he learns that Jenkin and Lee are planning to escape, he decides to join them.

This is not the sort of escape centred on impulsive decisions, athletic leaps and fighting. It’s a slow burner, the prison presenting a series of problems that must be solved one by one. To achieve this, Jenkin must spend a lot of time outside his cell at night, using wooden keys he has made in the prison workshop to afford him access and relying on the guards’ strict adherence to routine to keep him safe. Naturally, not everything goes to plan – even before he tries to take other people along the circuitous route that may lead them to freedom.

Intermingling these tense scenes with discussions among the prisoners (some of them big name activists) which highlight disagreements about the best way to resist Apartheid, Annan succeeds in explaining some of the nuances of the political situation to viewers who were born in a later era or far away, yet he never strays too far from the action. Rather than detracting from the tension, the discussions serve as a reminder that even if the plotters escape the prison, they’ll be deep in hostile territory – wanted men in a country where very few people were really free. It’s a sobering thought but it’s just another piece of the puzzle, another peril to be dealt with when the time is right.

With an intelligent central performance from Radcliffe, who uses his physical smallness to great effect in conveying Jenkin’s vulnerability and strung-out nerves, this is a thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat but that also has something going on upstairs. It’s a reminder of the horrors lurking in the not-so-distant past that continue to haunt South Africa to this day, and it’s also one hell of a story.

Escape From Pretoria is in UK cinemas from 6 March.

Reviewed on: 01 Mar 2020
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Escape From Pretoria packshot
In 1979 apartheid-era South Africa, two men imprisoned in Pretoria Prison plot to escape.
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Director: Francis Annan

Writer: Francis Annan, LH Adams

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Ian Hart, Daniel Webber

Year: 2020

Runtime: 106 minutes

Country: UK, Australia


Glasgow 2020

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