The Escapist

The Escapist


Reviewed by: Paul Griffiths

The Escapist is the stylish and impressively contained debut from British writer and director Rupert Wyatt. Not only has he delivered a first film that makes you want to see his second, he’s done it by injecting a degree of freshness into one of the most staple of genres, the prison escape movie.

Frank (Brian Cox) is a lifer and has long accepted that he’ll never see the outside again. A solid and phlegmatic character, he holds his own but neither attracts nor creates any trouble. Grief is far more likely to be started by the psychotic and drug-addled Tony (Steve Macintosh), brother to the camp but ruthless head con Rizza (Damian Lewis).

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However, when Frank receives a rare letter telling him that his cherished daughter is near death following an overdose, he starts to think about escaping, and fast. He’s got a plan and he needs help. Soon a mismatched crew of all the talents comes together, with Joseph Fiennes, Liam Cunningham, Seu Jorge and Dominic Cooper each pitching in.

Wyatt’s clever screenplay is all about the structure. There are two basic halves, the first building up to the escape, the second the escape itself. Simple enough, yet to create the requisite tension and drama Wyatt splices the two together. The sweaty urgency of the breakout is cut with flashbacks of the increasingly anxious and claustrophobic preparations. For the most part the contrivance pays off and it certainly brings dividends at the end.

A few prior sequences can start to feel quite forced and tiresome, especially when the escapists venture through catacombs that are vaguely reminiscent of the Mines of Moria. Nonetheless, the film hangs on a final twist that is finger-clickingly satisfying enough to justify those scenes that precede it. In fact, that is its explicit purpose. Anyone familiar with the Ambrose Bierce short story that inspired Wyatt’s script will have an inkling of the revelation in store.

Cox is as solid as ever and with his restrained performance makes a virtue of both the enclosed, forbidding prison environment and the reserved script. Gestures and words are slight, controlled, always watched, and feelings are kept covert, yet Cox portrays Frank as a believable character in the present and hints at how he used to be long ago. He’s ably supported by Cunningham, Jorge and Cooper, who take what opportunities they have to flesh out their roles. Macintosh and Lewis provide fine menace and malice as well, especially with the latter’s icy cruelty. Unfortunately, Joseph Fiennes grates. He’s certainly buffed up for his part as Lenny, a pent-up boxing addict, but he just can’t help looking and sounding like RADA-does-Eastenders. It doesn’t work.

Ultimately, this is a simple story with, as in any prison break movie, the freedom vs. incarceration circumstances a base for many a theme. Escapism, atonement and the four R’s - redemption, release, regret and responsibility - flow around the paternal Frank to good effect. Combined with Benjamin Wallfisch’s diverse score pulsing throughout, this all makes for proficient entertainment that marks Wyatt out as a filmmaker to watch.

Reviewed on: 16 Mar 2008
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A prison inmate must break out to make amends with his dying daughter.
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Director: Rupert Wyatt

Writer: Rupert Wyatt, Daniel Hardy

Starring: Brian Cox, Joseph Fiennes, Damian Lewis, Dominic Cooper, Seu Jorge, Steve Macintosh, Liam Cunningham

Year: 2008

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: UK

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