VOD film review: Escape from Pretoria
Chris Bryant | On 05, Apr 2020
Director: Francis Annan
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Ian Hart, Daniel Webber
Watch Escape from Pretoria online in the UK: Amazon Prime / Curzon Home Cinema / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
Escape from Pretoria is a one-of-a-kind prison break drama that stars Daniel Radcliffe, Daniel Webber and Mark Leonard Fontaine, as they attempt to escape a South African political prison during the struggle against apartheid. Tim Jenkin (Radcliffe) and Stephen Lee (Webber) were imprisoned in 1978 for distributing anti-government ANC literature. A la The Great Escape it becomes instantly clear that Jenkin and Lee see it as their duty to escape, and are almost immediately approached by Leonard Fontaine (Mark Leonard Winter playing a composite of real people, including the third real-life escapee Alex Moumbaris) as a willing participant.
Allowing the thrilling story to tell itself, the film carefully avoids a preaching narrative regarding the wider context, instead focusing on the trio’s struggle for freedom through the meticulous effort it took to break out.
The escape itself is mostly crafted from time – the trio painstakingly copied keys from sight onto stolen chips of wood, and then had to work out which door corresponded to which key. The group claim to have mapped the route they used “hundreds of times” to rehearse their escape, and the film follows their movements, their ingenious problem-solving and their near-misses almost exactly.
Radcliffe, Webber, and Winter are fantastic. Winters’ Fontaine – an angry, driven prisoner who integrated himself into the plan before he even knew there was one, never crosses the line into erratic or dangerous. It’s a fine example of how the film avoids clichés and prison-break tropes from the outset. Radcliffe and Webber have very little characterisation, but their determination and patience is all that needs to be shown to accurately portray Jenkins and Lee.
Scripted by L.H. Adams and Francis Annan, the film is based on Jenkins’ own book and repeatedly avoids adding in any forced tension or social commentary. While Mandela is mentioned twice, and the trio are imprisoned with ANC head Denis Goldberg, politics are predominantly left out of the frame – possibly because it’s well-trodden ground, but also because the prison is 100% white male inmates and so a righteous tale of racial fairness might seem out of place. Jenkins makes several mentions of being an ‘ally’ – an idea that the film embodies well.
Overall, this is a thoughtful and intense depiction of a brilliant story. It’s no blockbuster and it’s no arthouse classic. It’s a grounded, fantastically restrained telling of an important moment in South African history – a robust thriller that will certainly keep you gripped and stunned for 90 minutes.
Escape from Pretoria is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.