Escape from Pretoria




An example of yesterday's history still possessing relevance for today.

Escape from Pretoria

Daniel Radcliffe


Belonging to a well-established genre but one not much in vogue in recent times, Escape from Pretoria is a film that tells the story of a real-life prison escape. It happened in 1979 when Tim Jenkin and two fellow prisoners broke out of Pretoria Central Prison. Jenkin and Stephen Lee had arrived there consequent on sentences of twelve and eight years respectively for distributing leaflets on behalf of the African National Campaign. The two of them were joined by a third man, portrayed here as one Leonard Fontaine, in a remarkable escape bid that involved long-term planning being based on making and using wooden duplicates of at least ten keys that secured doors in the prison.


The film, ably directed by Francis Annan, is a straightforward account of how the escape was eventually achieved and as such it is set largely inside the prison. For older viewers it will undoubtedly bring to mind films of the 1950s which re-enacted actual escapes by British prisoners of war. Although shot in the 'Scope format, Escape from Pretoria is stylistically hardly different from those predecessors which had a wide appeal in Britain for audiences who, in an age of post-war austerity, were cheered by stories of individual British achievements of that kind in the war years. But one may wonder why this new work should emerge now and at what audience it is primarily aimed.


The fact that the opening voice over finds Jenkin explaining what Apartheid meant in South Africa at that time suggests that among the target viewers are the younger generation who thirty years on may need some introduction to this history. If that was indeed the intention, it was astute to cast Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe as Tim Jenkin. In any case, given that the screenplay by Annan himself and L.H. Adams is at times heavy-handed, it is much to the film's advantage to have Radcliffe at its centre. Daniel Webber and Mark Leonard Winter as Lee and Fontaine respectively give sound support, as does veteran actor Ian Hart as an older prisoner and supporter of Nelson Mandela but one who is dubious about the wisdom of the risky escape plan. Nevertheless, it is Radcliffe who carries the film with one of his best performances to date (there is a strong sense that he is playing the role from the inside and the way in which he makes facial expressions important reminds one of Jamie Bell's great achievement in 2017's Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool). 


Escape from Pretoria certainly has its weaknesses in that, quite apart from some ill-considered dialogue, its running length of 106 minutes makes for a sense of repetition at times and some of the incidents which threaten to expose the escape plan suggest that cliché has not been avoided in the dramatisation of this basically true story. Even so, the lesson of the film is not only a historical one but a statement for today as regards equality and the evil of racism. Add Radcliffe's impact and you have a worthwhile endeavour here. Inevitably Escape from Pretoria is not a patch on that greatest of all prison escape films, Robert Bresson's arthouse offering A Man Escaped (1956), but it may be that Annan is an admirer of that work: either that or it is a strange coincidence that both this film and Bresson's conclude with choral music by Mozart.




Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Daniel Webber, Ian Hart, Mark Leonard Winter, Nathan Page, Stephen Hunter, Jeanette Cronin, Ratidzo Mambo, PJ Oates, Lliam Amor, Lenny Firth, Adam Ovadia, Paul Harvey.


Dir Francis Annan, Pro Mark Blaney, Jackie Sheppard, David Barron, Michelle Krumm and Gary Hamilton, Screenplay Francis Annan and L.H. Adams, from the book by Tim Jenkin, Ph Geoffrey Hill, Pro Des Scott Bird, Ed Nick Fenton, Music David Hirschfelder, Costumes Mariot Kerr.


Arclight Films/Spier Films/Premiere Picture/Beagle Pug Films/Footprint Films-Signature Entertainment.
106 mins. UK/Australia. 2020. Rel: 6 March 2020.
Available on Curzon Home Cinema. Cert. 12A.