The slightly political prison thriller “Escape From Pretoria” works best when onscreen action is focused on Daniel Radcliffe, playing real-life South African political prisoner Tim Jenkin, as he leads a crack team of white prisoners in breaking out of Pretoria Maximum Security Prison.
That’s not really a spoiler, since “Escape From Pretoria” is based on a real-life prison break that led to a decades-long international manhunt. Still, it’s hard to care about what happens to Jenkin and co-conspirators Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber, “The Dirt”) and Denis Goldberg (Ian Hart), even if you do know how their story will end, and even though “Escape from Pretoria” does feature some well-paced and visually dynamic pre-breakout prep scenes.
Almost everything that’s enjoyable about “Escape From Pretoria” is a variation on stuff you’ve probably seen in superior prison movies, though Radcliffe’s haunted performance is exceptionally compelling. Jenkin and Lee’s politics never make sense beyond a couple of stiff and skimpy political rants and some light, exploitation-friendly scenes where prison guards yell at one (1) black prison employee and also infrequently scream at Jenkin and Lee for being “traitors to your race.”
This film from director Francis Annan, who co-adapted Jenkin’s memoir “Inside Out: Escape From Pretoria Prison” with L.H. Adams, succeeds as a straight-up genre movie but falters whenever its characters explain that their anti-apartheid politics — and some negligibly dramatized domestic drama involving Goldberg’s young son — are the main reasons why they need to bust out of prison. Life in Pretoria doesn’t otherwise seem unbearable enough to warrant so much dramatic build-up, especially if you’ve seen other prison break movies. (Any of them, really.)
“Escape From Pretoria” starts in 1975 with an appropriately mild bang: Jenkin and Lee are caught by Cape Town police as they distribute anti-apartheid literature with homemade explosives that function like makeshift confetti cannons, only they’re spreading propagandistic literature, not confetti. In a 1978 trial, Jenkin and Lee are respectively sentenced to 12 and eight years of prison by a vicious judge, who dresses them down on behalf of the entire South African government and its racist segregationist policies. It’s a good mustache-twirler of a speech, but there isn’t much more where it came from, except a couple of generic scenes where prison guards, particularly their hothead leader Mongo (Nathan Page, “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”), yell at, but pretty much never physically assault Jenkin and Lee.
There’s not enough tough talk, and even less action, which makes it hard to care whenever one (1) lumbering, overweight and seemingly unwell guard appears to be the only person in Jenkin’s way when he pokes at some of the barred prison doors’ locks with a couple of shop-made wooden keys. Really, that’s it?
There’s simultaneously too much and not enough dramatic and ideological baggage weighing on scenes where Jenkin and Lee plan their escape. Viewers are often asked to use their imaginations to understand what motivates these characters, presumably because we already know how we feel about apartheid, institutionalized racism, and/or prison-break movie conventions. Still, it’s hard to become emotionally invested in a thriller with such a well-loved narrative trajectory if you never feel like Jenkin and Lee would need to get out of Pretoria.
Radcliffe does his best with a few otherwise inert speeches about racial equality, but even he can’t enliven dead-fish monologues like this unfortunate bit of voiceover narration, from an early scene where Jenkin futzes with two bags full of home-made bombs: “What we chose to do was the most radical of all things and, without doubt, the most explosive.”
It’s almost as if the brief, pre-Pretoria scenes are meant to briskly establish and then move on from all the psychologically complex stuff that might make you want to root for Jenkin and Lee. Of course, apartheid is horrible, and these characters (and the real people that they represent) believed what they believed. But there’s not much to write home about if viewers can’t share the protagonists’ vision just by watching this movie and seeing the obstacles in their way.
Thankfully, Annan is a capable director of bite-sized, meat-and-potatoes escape-prep scenes, especially whenever Radcliffe physically over-exerts himself as Jenkin designs and tests the wooden keys that he and his crew used to unlock Pretoria’s doors. These well-crafted sequences, shot by director of photography Geoffrey Hall (“Chopper”) and edited by Nick Fenton (“American Animals”), are compelling while you’re watching them, mostly because Radcliffe has become a consistently engaging leading man in his post-Harry Potter roles. His tense, exhausted body language makes you believe that there’s a story behind Jenkin’s sweat-stained under-shirts and twitchy eyebrows.
The rest of “Escape From Pretoria” lacks that kind of interiority, making it hard to care whenever Radcliffe is offscreen. His diehard fans (and any prison break movie buffs) might find what they’re looking for here, but there’s not necessarily enough going down on-screen for anyone else.