Escape from Pretoria is the true story of an apartheid era, South African prison break. The film initially delves into the brutal, racist separation doctrine; then focuses fully on the intricate getaway. It builds tension as the prisoners execute their plan. Several hold your breath moments keep the action flowing at a quick pace. Daniel Radcliffe continues to be daring in his acting choices. He carries Escape from Pretoria with a restrained, but deliberate performance.
In 1978, Tim Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe) and Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber) were white South Africans who joined the revolutionary African National Congress (ANC). Led by Nelson Mandela, who was already imprisoned on Robben Island, the ANC fought against the brutal apartheid regime of the Afrikaners. Jenkin and Lee were caught planting devices that blew ANC leaflets into the air. They were dubbed “Leaflet Bombers” and sentenced to the political prison for whites in Pretoria.
The Afrikaner guards, fueled by their racial animosity and superiority beliefs, despised Jenkin and Lee. They had sold out their sacred white heritage to fight for the inferior blacks. Jenkin and Lee are looked after by Denis Goldberg (Ian Hart), a political prisoner and ally of Mandela serving a life sentence. While other prisoners accept their fate, a belligerent Frenchman, Leonard Fontaine (Mark Leonard Winter), refuses to be broken. Tim Jenkin, after observing the guards, and the locks on their cells; devises an ingenious plan to escape.
Escape from Pretoria opens with shocking footage of apartheid violence. It’s a brief onslaught. But shows why men of conscience, who were born in the ruling race and upper-class; swore to fight against it. Jenkin and Lee’s time in the prison is spent with other political prisoners. They shared their beliefs, especially Denis Goldberg, and contributed to their plan. They were cut off from the outside world, but saw daily how the guards beat and cruelly mistreated the black servant prisoners. These scenes will make your blood boil.
The nuts and bolts of the escape dominate the runtime. Jenkin, Lee, and Fontaine could be caught at any moment. They skillfully hide their tools in plain sight, but have multiple set-backs. Daniel Radciffe is especially good under duress. You’ll watch nervously as the vicious captain (Grant Piro) searches his cell for contraband. Radcliffe looks like he’s about to jump out of his skin, but remains cool in several sticky situations.
I had a couple of minor issues with the film. First and foremost, there’s an over-reliance on voice over narration. Radcliffe, as Jenkin, provides a running commentary that explains everything they do. It’s an unnecessary crutch, the acting and story don’t need the assistance. The opening primer on apartheid violence, social injustice, and repression needed to elaborate further. The purpose of this film isn’t just an interesting get out of jail thriller. Jenkin and Lee had beliefs worth fighting for and getting imprisoned. Escape from Pretoria could have explored their backgrounds further, and why they chose to risk everything for the subjugated. Escape from Pretoria is produced by Arclight Films and distributed in the United States by Momentum Pictures.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Movieweb.
Film critic, raconteur, praying for dolphins to grow thumbs and do better.