“We’re busting the fuck out of here.” That’s Richard Matt (Benicio Del Toro) to David Sweat (Paul Dano) in Escape at Dannemora, a new eight-part series based on a real life escape from jail that happened in 2015. It’s the kind of dialogue you’d expect from a Hollywoodised account of a stranger-than-fiction prison break, but Escape at Dannemora intentionally doesn’t offer that, for better and for worse.
The actual escape took place at the Clinton Correctional Facility near the Canada border, with Richard and David helped by Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell, the supervisor of the prison’s sewing factory. The opening episodes dive into the growing relationship between the three of them, as ties begin to form. Ties are already (ahem) firm and ripe between David and Tilly, as they share intense trysts in the boiler room round the back of the workshop – encounters that are presented with a frank, abrupt air that make them feel more necessary than romantic. Also close are CO Gene Palmer (David Morse) and Matt, who have a give-and-take bond that’s based on the provision of favours and shortcuts in exchange for oil paintings done by Matt in his cell – an enjoyably unlikely talent undertaken with a host of illicit equipment (also permitted by Palmer).
Del Toro and Dano are both excellent, the former imperious, calculated, confident and careful, and the latter smart but nervous, pragmatic but timid. They’re both matched superbly by Patricia Arquette, who is unrecognisable as Tilly, a woman who enjoys her position of authority even though she doesn’t seem fully in control of it; by the end of the second instalment, despite her marriage to Lyle (Eric Lange), Matt is working his magic on her, placing her in a fateful position between the two men.
But while the cast impresses, Escape at Dannemora begins to frustrate by showing no sign of reaching the escape part anytime soon; the series is played as more drama than thriller, with a flashback driven by an interrogation of Tilly framing the narrative. With the actual prison break a long way off, though, and the knowledge that events will climax with a headline-making manhunt for the convicts, that slow speed is keenly felt; with eight episodes in total, the series is set to have a lot of Shawshank before the proverbial redemption.
It’s to director Ben Stiller’s credit that he’s deliberately taking the time to weave a detailed portrait of the everyday realities of Matt and Sweat’s sentences. But by shirking the momentum you’d expect from a glossy retelling of events, there’s a mismatch between the show’s slick editing, very knowing use of music and stylised dialogue and the script’s unflashy pacing. Nonetheless, with compelling performances and a convincing environment from the off, there’s still potential for a great show to break out from between these intriguing, promising walls. Here’s hoping Matt’s patience rubs off – or that you have the time to binge-watch the whole box set, rather than absorb it in weekly doses.
Escape at Dannemora premieres at 9pm on Sky Atlantic on Tuesday 1st January 2019, with the whole box set available on-demand. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 Entertainment Month Pass subscription – with a 7-day free trial.