Escape From Pretoria review: Daniel Radcliffe on fine form

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Daniel Radcliffe and Ian Hart lead the adaptation of the book Escape From Pretoria – and here’s our review.

Based on the book by the same name, Escape From Pretoria is the feature film directorial debut of British filmmaker Francis Annan. It follows Caucasian African National Congress (ANC) members Ian Jenkin (Radcliffe) and Stephen Lee (Webber) as they are arrested and imprisoned for spreading ‘propaganda’ during Apartheid in 1979. Taken to Pretoria Local Prison, the two – along with fellow prisoner Leonard (Winter) – plan to escape.

Despite being based on a true story, there’s a lack of thrills to the drama that mainly stems from Jenkin’s composed nature. From the moment he’s arrested, he’s going through the motions of what is to happen next. This level of preparedness fails to deliver a sense of trepidation and fear, which impacts the movie. Likewise, there’s little character development prior to their arrest, so it becomes difficult to resonate with the men. Instead, we rely on their escape efforts to guide the story, which is hindered by inconsistent pacing and tone.

Although it’s not a focal point in the narrative, the political and social unrest within South Africa during Apartheid lingers under the surface. Officers feel their abuse towards black South Africans is ‘justified’ and that Caucasian campaigners are wrong for believing in a united South Africa. Having this sentiment echoing off the walls within the film’s confined settings creates a restlessness that encourages the escape efforts. It also reminds audiences that while Jenkin, Lee and Goldberg are imprisoned, South Africa is still divided and the ANC still needs their support.

Radcliffe and Webber deliver strong performances (despite inconsistent accents) but the real stars are Mark Leonard Winter and Ian Hart. As social campaigner Denis Goldberg, Hart offers a quietly commanding performance as his institutionalised character provides a glimpse of the protagonists’ potential future if they don’t take action. Based on third escapee Alex Moumbaris, Winter’s Leonard offers an emotionality to the tale as he is determined to reunite with his family, with tense scenes involving his son highlighting the injustice of his situation. Visually, Annan takes advantage of bold lighting and the prison’s enclosed spaces to create tension.

Even though Apartheid eventually came to an end, Jenkin’s efforts may have felt like a small victory, but it became an integral act of protest in an extremely dangerous time. Escape From Pretoria offers solid performances and clever filmmaking but lacks tension and complexity.

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