ESCAPE FROM PRETORIA: A Prison Break Film Isolated From a Deeper Context

The dramatization of the 1979 jailbreak is an entertaining watch–but fails to fully reckon with the deeper struggles of South Africa’s Apartheid past

One of the best books I read as a kid was a little book fair tome called “Usborne’s Tales of Real Adventure.” It was a gripping read for a preteen, with crazy survival stories and escape attempts, from the Hindenberg to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s crash-landing in the Libyan desert to my favorite story of the bunch: Tim Jenkin and Stephen Lee’s escape from Pretoria Prison in South Africa. Jenkin and Lee, imprisoned for their roles in the fight against Apartheid, managed to escape what was touted as South Africa’s Alcatraz, and their bravery and determination helped expose yet another chink in the crumbling armor of the racist South African government. I didn’t appreciate the magnanimity of this escape in the context of the Apartheid regime, but these men’s ingenious prison break in the name of their ideals stuck with me for years.

Naturally, as soon as I heard 20-odd years later that Jenkin and Lee’s escape had received the film treatment, I was on board. On paper, Escape From Pretoria’s got everything — a timely story about ideological and moral resistance against institutional corruption, Daniel Radcliffe and Ian Hart reuniting, and suspense-driven intricate escape processes. In execution, the film’s pretty decent; though one can’t help but feel like its dedication to the minutiae of Jenkin and Lee’s escape comes at the cost of a more thorough and needed exploration of its own ideals.

Escape From Pretoria follows the months-long construction of an escape plan formulated by South African apartheid activists Tim Jenkin, Stephen Lee, and French national Leonard Fontaine (substituted for Egyptian-Australian activist Alex Moumbaris). Jenkin and Lee are imprisoned for year-length prison sentences for a non-lethal ANC leaflet bombing of a public street; Fontaine is another political prisoner serving years inside and away from his son, whom Fontaine is only allowed to see for a half-hour each year. From the moment Jenkin and Lee step inside Pretoria, an escape plan is forming — but they face opposition not just from the extremely racist guards, but from their fellow prisoners. Denis Goldberg, an ANC Veteran imprisoned at the same time as Nelson Mandela, views their imprisonment as a monastic symbol of their struggle; and while he is happy to advise the jailbreakers on the dangers of their quest, he believes that their success only predicates future harsh punishment by the government. Unswayed by the dangers around them, Jenkin, Lee, and Fontaine use everything from broomstick crank handles, wooden keys, and gum-and-string pulley systems to inch closer to freedom.

Escape from Pretoria boasts a solid ensemble cast anchored by Daniel Radcliffe, Daniel Webber, and Mark Leonard Winter. Jenkin is easily one of Radcliffe’s best roles, an unwavering idealist who approaches his hardships with an equally unflappable degree of pragmatism. Webber does act as more of a sounding board to Radcliffe’s ideas, but manages to inject light humor in contrast to his co-star’s gravitas. Leonard provides more pathos to the group with his material, but his over-the-top performance feels sometimes out-of-place, drawing further attention to his character’s position as a substitute for another real-life person. Ian Hart gives a decent supporting turn as well as an almost anti-mentor in Goldberg, illustrating another shade of the cast’s shared ideals to somewhat self-destructive ends.

Like other prison break procedurals, Pretoria crafts much of its narrative on the minute process of escape, and the many methods that the trio used to escape are mined for effective suspense throughout. Jenkin, Lee, and Leonard only have so many materials to work with, requiring just as much trial-and-error for each step of their process. Writer-director Francis Annan and co-writer L.H. Adams milk each moment for what its got, especially in a sequence where Jenkin must fish a stray wooden key out of a closely-patrolled hallway using nothing but gum at the end of a string.

As entertaining as the process-driven story may be, Annan and Adams’ laser-focus on it does come at the expense of the greater context of the escapees’ imprisonment. There is tension between Jenkin’s group and Goldberg’s when it comes to the rationale of escaping a political prison. Namely, whether it’s more noble to endure imprisonment for one’s ideals with dignity to morally humiliate your aggressors, or to escape in order to undermine their power and hopefully incite meaningful change. However, viewers aren’t given much — if any — of the climate of the outside world to go on, aside from a brief beginning sequence illustrating the circumstances that led Jenkin and Lee to be arrested. Radcliffe’s Jenkin is given much of the expository legwork of Pretoria in lengthy voiceovers, which set up the anti-Apartheid dynamic well, but Jenkin’s voiceover and his brief tensions with Goldberg do little to illustrate exactly why this struggle means so much to them personally, and what effect their suffering may have on the outside world.

That’s not to say that prison break films can’t be as straightforward as this one. The equally detail-obsessed A Man Escaped by Robert Bresson is a clear influence on Escape from Pretoria, from its structure to its soundtrack choices. But Bresson’s film still reckoned with serious issues of its time, from whether to collaborate with one’s oppressors to the limits of faith in the wake of dispassionate human suffering. There’s clearly room for Pretoria to greater reckon with the legacy of Apartheid, especially since Annan and Adams are turning their gaze to the past in a time of hostility towards immigrants and other heightening ethnocentric policymaking. However, these aspects go unexplored in favor of repetitious tension, no matter how entertaining that tension may be. As someone excited to explore this story beyond what I learned as a kid, I can’t say my knowledge of Jenkin and Lee’s escape deepened by a considerable margin. That said, Escape from Pretoria is still a solidly-made film by everyone involved. If anything, it may inspire people to check out Jenkin’s published memoir about the escape and motivate viewers to engage in serious conversation about the nature of political imprisonment.

Escape from Pretoria is now in theaters and on demand and digital from Momentum Pictures.

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