Escape from Pretoria review – tense prisonbreak in Apartheid South Africa

Escape from Pretoria is a prison break movie about the real-life escape of two white ANC activists from Pretoria Prison (a white-only political prison) in Apartheid South Africa. Daniel Radcliffe plays Tim Jenkin, and Daniel Webber his comrade and cellmate Stephen Lee in what is a competent heist movie set against a historical backdrop.

Courtesy of Arclight Films

The movie draws parallels with contemporary tyranny from the outset, opening with archive film footage of police brutality only too recognisable to modern viewers, be it the fuzzy camera footage of an American police officer beating a black man, or that of IDF soldiers beating Palestinians. It’s a timely reminder that oppressive violence becomes, with little difficulty, pervasively normal in fascist regimes. Daniel Radcliffe’s Jenkin is a hard-nosed narrator who unflinchingly leads us through the brutality of his time. This tone is emphasised by a matter-of-factness which cuts through the dramatic interpretation on screen, including thought-provoking quips about (for example) the limits of peaceful protest. The hardened prisoner railing against the status quo may be an established trope of the prison break genre but, in this context particularly, it proves very effective.

There are many other ways in which Escape from Pretoria is a capable example of its genre. Pretoria Prison itself is dark and foreboding; its cantina is live with standoffish masculinity and hostile, suspicious stares, while the guards are brutal and sadistic. However the unflinching un-sentimentality with which the film documents the repressive state apparatuses of Apartheid South Africa doesn’t well serve the story’s more emotional beats, such as Leonard and his son’s tragic annual conversation through the visitors’ room window.

Courtesy of Arclight Films

The machinations of the titular escape unfold through a mixture of show and tell – both in whispered conversations and in Jenkin’s voice-over – and while much of the tension repeatedly hangs on whether various wooden keys will open the lock or snap, the (apparently, unbelievably, true) near-misses are genuinely nerve-racking.

In the end though, it is the film’s relationship with its history that proves its downfall: genre and history prove at odds. Where Escape from Pretoria is based on the true story of an all-white political prison, it’s difficult to simultaneously keep the wider (black-majority) nation in view while still maintaining the hermetic claustrophobia of a prison movie.

Escape from Pretoria isn’t doing what Stonewall did in absenting Marsha P Johnson, it just tells a white story in a wider narrative of black liberation, even as it is being headed by black co-writer and director Francis Annan. Escape from Pretoria, then, is something of a Trojan horse. If people are enticed to watch a prison break movie, they might inadvertently learn a lesson in radical history. On the other hand, if people are coming for a history lecture, they are likely to be entertained but disappointed.

Escape from Pretoria is out in cinemas now.

George Davies

Theatre and film critic from a socialist perspective. Expect reviews with a cultural-materialist or Marxist angle. Join a union. x