“Freedom is a very simple idea, which is perhaps why it can be so easily lost”
Francis Annan’s Australian thriller Escape from Pretoria (2020) is based on the real-life prison escape of three political prisoners in South Africa in 1979. The intricacies of this ground-shaking event are outlined in the 2003 book Inside Out: Escape from Pretoria Prison by Tim Jenkin, one of the fugitives.
While actively opposing the Apartheid, Tim Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe) and Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber) are seized and sentenced to imprisonment. Refusing to succumb to despair, they start hatching an escape plan from the moment the steel bars of Pretoria slide closed behind them. Leonard Fontaine (Mark Leonard Winter), a fellow prisoner and a man desperate to break out to repair his wilting relationship with his son, joins them in their efforts. Together, they take impossible risks and exercise their intelligence to come up with a plan that will help them regain freedom and rejoin the fight against oppression.
To comprehend the dynamics between the prisoners and the guards, as well as the mechanics of a world that punished people for pushing back against racism, it’s crucial to understand the Apartheid. The word itself means “apartness” in Afrikaans, and refers to a system of racial segregation in South Africa and South West Africa from 1948 until the early 1990s. Speculation regarding the origins of the law-forming Apartheid, brutal and unforgiving in its nature, circles back to racial superiority and fear, which dominated minds during World War II.
The very essence of the Apartheid is enclosed in the words spoken by one of the guards: “You are the white Mandela. You are the most deluded of them all.” This overture lays the grounds for the tense world of hatred and vindictiveness that our protagonists step into. And with the story unfurling in confinement, restrictive and dull by nature, everything hangs on that inner strain. Fortunately, Escape from Pretoria relishes the challenge, and presents one of the most intense cinematic experiences in recent history.
David Hirschfelder’s music brings to mind spiders creeping up the spine, sliding their hairy legs beneath exposed fingernails. Its treacherous beats and relentless scrapes electrify the screen, giving life to a ghost-like entity that lurks in the background and breathes down the protagonists’ necks. This aural experience sets a staunch pace for the rest of the film, rewarding it with dynamic sequences and contorted relationships between the prisoners. The repetitiveness of life in prison seems like it could have been a growling threat in the way of the plot, but was defeated triumphantly before it could stand on its hind legs.
Moreover, the clandestine nature of Escape from Pretoria hurls its actors’ talent into the wide-eyed gazes of the viewers. Radcliffe stirs emotion through his physicality, manipulating his body to reflect the scrutinizing, frightened and enraged state of his character – often all at once. We’ve already glimpsed his capacity for wordless acting in Greg McLean’s Jungle (2017), but the margins of his talent only seem to be stretching. In fact, the film’s entire ensemble presents a spectacular front, with Mark Leonard Winter providing both the film’s most rebellious struggles, and some startling comic relief.
Above all, Escape from Pretoria caters to fans of the genre, balancing its political and historical significance against the structure that amplifies its high entertainment value. The film is brimming with moments of skin-raising tension, ensuring that every blunder and unexpected obstacle has the audience sinking its teeth into white-knuckled fists. More importantly, the film serves as a poignant and terrifying reminder of the not-too-distant past, which continues to demand a fairer, more just world for all.
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