Prison life is nothing more than a series of routines repeated day after day ad nauseam, Tim Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe) tells us midway through “Escape from Pretoria.”
Every single inmate has to live by the routine, Jenkin tells us, but the smart ones figure out how to exploit it to their advantage.
The same holds true, I think, for the directors of prison break movies – a genre that really hasn’t changed a lot since the granddaddy of them all – “The Great Escape”- was released back in 1963. If you’re going to get audiences excited about a prison break movie these days, you better give them something new to get excited about, and “Pretoria” director Francis Annan just doesn’t.
Still, the formula is formula because it works, and it works here too. If “Pretoria” doesn’t rewrite the rules of the genre, it proves that there are still some genuine pleasures to be found in it, and there are certainly enough deftly executed thrills in the film to recommend it.
Comparisons between “Pretoria” and “The Great Escape” are probably inevitable for numerous reasons – not the least of which being that they are both ripped from the pages of history.
Annan trades a German POW camp for South Africa’s Pretoria Central Prison, which in 1979, was known as the home of political activists and those fighting apartheid in the country. Jenkin and Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber) found themselves there after committing numerous “leaflet bombings” in order to raise awareness of apartheid and of the cause of Nelson Mandela and his followers.
Jenkin and Lee’s arrest occurs early in the first act, which allows Annan time to explore the prison and its inmates while also taking time to showcase the prison’s intricate routines. All the while, we can see the wheels turning in Jenkin’s head as he develops an escape plan.
I won’t spoil that escape plan for you if you aren’t a student of South African history, but suffice it to say, “Pretoria” is one of those stranger-than-fiction tales that seems made for the movies. And every twist and turn is utterly engrossing.
A lot of that can be attributed to the cast. Radcliffe continues to make the case, post-“Harry Potter,” for why he is one of the most interesting young actors working today. He brings a raw, livewire energy to Jenkin that makes him a solid rooting interest.
Radcliffe is the closest thing to a “name” in this cast, but other character actors make an impression too. Mark Leonard Winter matches Radcliffe scene for scene as a fellow inmate who latches onto Jenkin’s escape plan, and Ian Hart adds some gravitas as the worldweary social activist Denis Goldberg, who’s become cynical after years of watching failed escape attempts.
The prison break, when it comes, is thrilling and enlivened by some flashy directorial touches (a computer-generated view into the inner workings of a lock, an extreme closeup on a bead of sweat running down a man’s face). Two-time Academy-Award-nominated composer David Hirschfelder complements the action nicely with a nerve-janglingly tense score.
Annan may lay the genre’s clichés on a bit heavy once or twice, and I could have done without the near-constant voiceover narration from Radcliffe. Webber is the weakest link of a generally exceptional cast and comes off more as a handsome enigma than anything.
But even the best-acted characters in the film are somewhat enigmatic in “Pretoria,” and that points to the film’s biggest fault. In his rush to get to the (admittedly thrilling) prison break, Annan forgets to develop his characters beyond mere sketches. We get little insight into why Jenkin and Lee committed their crimes and how they became involved in the Apartheid movement. A little more time spent in the “real world” outside Pretoria would go a long way toward making the characters feel more human.
At the end of the day, this is a prison break movie that just happens to have some humans – not a human story that just happens to have a prison break. That distinction makes all the difference.
Admittedly, this is a common criticism of prison break movies – one that goes all the way back to “The Great Escape” itself. Just consider the great Bosley Crowther’s opinion of that film:
“’The Great Escape’ grinds out its tormenting story without a peek beneath the surface of any man, without a real sense of human involvement. It’s a strictly mechanical adventure with make-believe men.”
With all due respect, Crowther was, and is, dead wrong about “The Great Escape,” but that’s actually a pretty suitable description of “Escape from Pretoria” (rated PG-13 for violence, language and some disturbing material).
But even without a beating human heart, there is still some joy in the mechanics. And if Annan isn’t rewriting the prison break genre, “Pretoria” proves that he doesn’t really need to.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at email@example.com.