The inmates who break out of Pretoria Central Prison are imprisoned for their political activities, but the context is mostly irrelevant to Francis Annan’s Escape From Pretoria, which is far more interested in generating suspense and painstakingly chronicling procedural details than in delivering a social message. Based on the memoir by South African anti-apartheid activist Tim Jenkin, Escape tells the story of how Jenkin (played by Daniel Radcliffe) and two fellow prisoners broke out of Pretoria Central in 1979, a little over a year after Jenkin and his African National Congress associate Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber) were handed long prison sentences (twelve and eight years, respectively) for distributing leaflets in support of banned organizations.
The movie opens with a tense sequence featuring Jenkin and Lee on a crowded street planting what look like bombs, but turn out to be something closer to jack-in-the-boxes –designed to disperse leaflets with a literal bang, sending them flying all over the street (but not harming anyone). That’s enough to get the two incarcerated by a legal system designed to protect apartheid, and when they arrive at Pretoria, they’re surrounded by other political prisoners, including Denis Goldberg (Ian Hart), who was arrested alongside Nelson Mandela. Mandela, of course, is in a different prison miles away, because black and white prisoners are held separately. When Jenkin first arrives, one guard refers to him derisively as “the white Nelson Mandela,” and the character’s opening narration describes how he and Lee could not stand to participate in an oppressive system.
But otherwise their privilege as white South Africans isn’t a major plot point in the movie. Mandela has been represented onscreen many times, so it’s not like his contributions to the movement have been erased, and Jenkin and Lee aren’t held up as anything like white saviors. Once they get into their daily prison routine, Escape drops most of its political elements and more closely resembles The Shawshank Redemption, Escape From Alcatraz, or Papillon (whose source novel supposedly inspired the real-life Jenkin to plan his escape), focusing on the careful planning required to pull off the complex breakout. As Jenkin crafts more than a dozen keys out of nothing but wood from the prison wood shop (and his own photographic memory from staring at guards’ key rings), Annan effectively builds anticipation and dread for what’s to come, even if the true-story disclaimer at the beginning offers reasonable assurance of a happy ending.
Annan (who co-wrote the screenplay with L.H. Adams) offers almost no background details on any of the characters aside from their involvement with the ANC. Where they came from isn’t nearly as important as where they are now — and where they are headed. Jenkin and Lee team up with French prisoner Leonard Fontaine (Mark Leonard Winter), who is more concerned about seeing his young son than about any political activities, and Goldberg initially opposes their efforts (fearing it will hurt the movement if they get caught) before eventually offering his support.
Escape doesn’t really have anything to say about South African politics (the requisite title cards at the end of the movie take care of the entire end of apartheid in a few sentences), but it’s still an engrossing prison-break thriller, with intense moments of danger that hinge on a piece of gum or a paper clip. Radcliffe’s South African accent is a bit shaky at times, but he conveys the righteous fury that drove Jenkin, who promised to break out even before arriving at Pretoria. Lee barely registers as a character, and the efforts at humanizing Fontaine (a fictionalized version of the real third escapee) are superfluous, but Webber and Winter both provide the grit required to sell the inmates’ need to escape.
The climactic breakout sequence is expertly staged, even as it makes use of familiar elements from decades of prison-break movies. The real-life story of Jenkin and Lee as activists extends far beyond Pretoria, but viewers of this movie will have to pick up Jenkin’s book (or go online) to hear more. Escape From Pretoria is about nothing more than the escape from Pretoria, and it fulfills those modest B-movie ambitions.
“Escape from Pretoria” is out Friday in limited release and on VOD.