'Escape From Pretoria': Film Review

Escape from Pretoria Still 1 - Momentum Pictures Publicity -H 2020
Courtesy of Momentum Pictures
A solid, if familiar, genre film with a true-history backdrop.

Daniel Radcliffe plays an imprisoned anti-apartheid activist in Francis Annan's jailbreak drama.

White anti-apartheid activists escape from not-quite-Alcatraz in Escape From Pretoria, Francis Annan's account of a real 1979 jailbreak in South Africa. Their cause was righteous and their methods ingenious, but as tension mounts in this film's telling, one starts to wonder: Why don't they just bonk that lone, incompetent nighttime jailer on his head and use his keys to spring all their comrades from the pen as well? Star Daniel Radcliffe will be the biggest draw here, but the pic's focus on planning and genre mechanics over personalities may limit its appeal for his fans.

Radcliffe portrays Tim Jenkin, who partnered with Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber) in a campaign of "leaflet bombing" — using small explosives to disseminate flyers urging whites to support the African National Congress and end racist policies. Jenkin and Lee were caught and, after being scorned by a judge for their embrace of an inferior race, sentenced to 12 and eight years in prison, respectively.

On the inside, the film quickly settles into a familiar mode: An older prisoner takes the men under his wing, warning them of which inmates to avoid and explaining how eager guards are to shoot if they're given a reason. This is Denis Goldberg (Ian Hart), who's serving an impossibly long term for armed support of Nelson Mandela. From day one, Tim is fixated on plans to escape, but Goldberg argues vehemently against it: They're prisoners of conscience, he argues, who must play that role stoically; and anyway, getting out is impossible. (In real life, it seems Goldberg was willing to join the attempt, only backing out after practicalities interfered.)

The plan revolves around carved wood. Tim, who has a job in the wood shop, takes every opportunity to scrutinize the shape of guards' cell keys, then carves little replicas to try on his own cell. (The film mostly eliminates what must have been an agonizingly long trial-and-error phase.)

Viewers who find this quaintly low-tech will have many opportunities in the film's second half to observe how this breakout could never have happened today. Security cameras would have made it impossible, for instance; the highest-tech thing in the jail seems to be the big button that controls a barred door via a motor and bicycle chain. If you can't get to the button, you could probably just pry the chain off its gear. Then there's that Keystone Kop who seems to be the only lawman in the jail after lockup: He wheezes and waddles on his rounds, in no hurry to investigate noises he surely hears; if he sees a clue that something's amiss on the cell block, you can be fairly sure he'll ignore it so he can get back to his chair and his opera records.

That guard isn't used for comic effect, really, so it's hard to say why the pic makes him so unthreatening. Still, for a viewer who accepts that getting caught remains a possibility, Annan does find the usual ways to generate suspense — and once or twice, he and co-screenwriter L.H. Adams invent clever ways to resolve them. Now if only they'd included a line or two to explain why the climactic event seems to occur in the middle of the day, with street life in full bloom, while Pretoria Central Prison behaves like it's 3 a.m.

Production company: Footprint Films
Distributor: Momentum Pictures
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Daniel Webber, Mark Leonard Winter, Ian Hart
Director: Francis Annan
Screenwriters: Francis Annan, L.H. Adams
Producers: David Barron, Mark Blaney, Gary Hamilton, Michelle Krumm, Jackie Sheppard
Director of photography: Geoffrey Hall
Production designer: Scott Bird
Costume designer: Mariot Kerr
Editor: Nick Fenton
Composer: David Hirschfelder
Casting director: Nanw Rowlands

Rated PG-13, 106 minutes