Escape from Pretoria tells the true story of one of the most daring prison breaks in history, and is based on the book Inside Out: Escape from Pretoria Prison by Tim Jenkin.
Following Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe) and Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber), two White South African anti-apartheid activists, Escape from Pretoria begins with their arrest and subsequent sentencing to 12 and 8 respective years in Pretoria Prison.
Escape from Pretoria is a movie that kept me in two minds throughout. It’s seemingly a movie with two hearts; one that’s dedicated to the incredibly daring real-life prison escape, and another that intends to keep the anti-apartheid/anti-racism message from becoming lost in the narrative.
This apparent identity crisis was unavoidable, though. Given the movie’s basis in reality, it had no choice but to follow an (almost) all-White cast, with only a few Black actors appearing in minor roles. This is largely due to the fact that Jenkin and Lee were serving their sentences in an all-White prison, but given the regular talk of overthrowing apartheid, the lack of any real Black characters leaves the slightly bitter taste of White Saviourism.
Still, it would be unfair to dismiss the movie’s true story for simply being (mostly) true to history. But Escape from Pretoria‘s slightly off-colour (no pun intended, really) casting doesn’t end with skin tone. Despite being set in South Africa and telling the story of a number of South African men, for some reason, the top billed cast are all British and Australian. It’s just another of those behind-the-scenes choices that only serves to tarnish a movie before it’s even begun.
Once Escape from Pretoria has begun, however, it’s brilliant. Radcliffe proves exactly why he made it onto our list of Hollywood’s most underrated stars with a spectacular performance as Jenkin, delivering exactly the level of carefully measured emotion we’ve come to expect from prison movies. Daniel Webber and Mark Leonard Winter also deliver noteworthy performances in their lead roles, rounding out the movie’s cast with a trifecta of solid, emotionally sound performances.
As you’d expect, Escape From Pretoria is incredibly suspenseful, and it makes sure that we feel entirely invested in Jenkin’s escape: even knowing beforehand that he’d eventually make it out, my heart was in my throat with every snag and every small mishap.
There were certainly aspects of Escape from Pretoria that could have been better. Aside from those mentioned above, there’s a distinct lack of depth to the movie’s characters, despite their status as real human beings (with the exception of Fontaine, who was still based on real-life escapee Alex Moumbaris). The lack of character development is mostly down to the movie’s unflinching focus on the details of the escape, and the actors’ performances are almost enough to mask what’s missing, but ultimately, the movie’s characters are a lot like the wooden keys Jenkin used to escape – an obvious approximation of the real thing thrown together out of necessity.
Summary: The true story of Escape from Pretoria will have you at the edge of your seat for most of its run-time – a must-watch for fans of prison movies or political history.