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Escape from Pretoria (2020) Movie Review

Thriller / Drama

By Diresh SheridPublished 2 months ago 3 min read
73% Rotten Tomatoes | 6.8/10 IMDb

When anti-apartheid activist Tim Jenkin arrived at Pretoria Local Prison in 1978, he was met with a ham-faced warden who spat the words, "You are the white Mandela" at him. The warden did not mean it as a compliment, calling Jenkin "the most deluded of them all." In Francis Annan's film, "Escape from Pretoria," this line serves as a shortcut to nobility. But the film has scant time for character development and social context. It works well as a straight-up jailbreak thriller, but when it tries to tackle historical import, it falls short.

Jenkin's book of the same title was published in 1987 while he was still a fugitive from nominal justice in London. It is surprising that it has taken this long for his gripping story to make it to the screen, given how it fits so neatly into a genre-film uniform. Unfortunately, "Escape from Pretoria" has been done cheaply and cheerfully as an Australian production by British writer-director Francis Annan. It leans heavily on suspense mechanics, modestly understating its factual heft. Daniel Radcliffe's casting as Jenkin provides some marquee appeal, but the film still feels like efficient VOD fodder. Meanwhile, it may struggle to find much of a fanbase in South Africa, where audiences might wonder why at least one South African actor couldn't have been cast in a principal role.

Sporting a squirrelly shag wig and a valiantly attempted but wayward Cape Town accent, Radcliffe plays Jenkin, a middle-class sociology student turned underground activist for the African National Congress. Given the limited backstory filled in by Annan and L.H. Adams' screenplay, the actor's signature anxious-earnest mien is leaned on heavily here, as is his overly explanatory voiceover. It provides a broad primer on apartheid for uninformed viewers, along with a reminder that "freedom and equality should be fought for at all costs."

Jenkin and his best friend Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber) were caught planting a leaflet bomb to distribute ANC protest flyers in central Cape Town, resulting in a 12-year prison sentence. They were banished to the vast prison complex of Pretoria, the country's administrative capital, where they were counseled by veteran liberal political prisoner Denis Goldberg (Ian Hart) to keep their heads down and serve their time with dignity as "prisoners of conscience." Jenkin and Lee instead saw themselves as "prisoners of war" and immediately began devising an escape plan. Jenkin hatched a plan to whittle wooden facsimiles of the keys to every door separating them from the outside world. It was an almost naively simple scheme that necessitated a complex network of hiding places and bluffs, as vindictive guards began to suspect something was afoot.

The real-life Goldberg was much more involved in the prison-break strategy. The film takes liberties with the facts for the sake of narrative friction. The third partner in the escape, Egyptian-born activist Alex Moumbaris, has been fictionalized as enigmatic Frenchman Leonard (Mark Leonard Winter), who has no discernible history or motivation at all, while two black allies in the plan are marginal presences at best. Characterization takes a distant back seat to the ingenious practicalities of the mission itself.

In conclusion, "Escape from Pretoria" is a well-executed thriller that effectively captures the tension and high stakes of a daring prison escape. While the film's historical context and characters are somewhat underdeveloped, its focus on the mechanics of the escape itself makes for a gripping and entertaining watch. The film benefits from strong performances by Daniel Radcliffe and Daniel Webber, as well as solid direction by Francis Annan and skilled cinematography and editing. However, some viewers may find the lack of attention to historical accuracy and casting of non-South African actors in key roles to be a drawback. Overall, "Escape from Pretoria" is a worthwhile addition to the prison break movie genre, and a compelling testament to the ingenuity and determination of anti-apartheid activists.


About the Creator

Diresh Sherid

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