ESCAPE FROM PRETORIA movie poster | ©2020 Momentum Pictures

ESCAPE FROM PRETORIA movie poster | ©2020 Momentum Pictures

Rating: PG-13
Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Daniel Webber, Ian Hart, Mark Leonard Winter
Writers: Francis Annan & L.H. Adams, based on the book by Tim Jenkin
Director: Francis Annan
Distributor: Momentum Pictures
Release Date: March 6, 2020

ESCAPE FROM PRETORIA, based on the nonfiction book by Tim Jenkin, tells the fact-based story of the title action embarked on by Jenkin (played here by Daniel Radcliffe), Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber), and another compatriot (Alex Moumbaris in reality, fictionalized here as Leonard, played by Mark Leonard Winter).

As they say in court, let us stipulate for the record that, of all the events to chronicle about resistance to apartheid in South Africa, yes, this is one about white guys. Let us further state that, as these things go, ESCAPE FROM PRETORIA is good, a successful prison-break thriller that find thrills in the details.

We’re in Johannesburg, South Africa, in the ‘70s. (Adelaide, Australia stands in for the location.) Apartheid, institutionalized racial segregation and abuse of non-whites, is the law of the land. We meet Jenkin, who narrates, as a young white member of the mostly black, and banned, African National Congress. Jenkin and his friend and fellow white ANC member Lee are recent college graduates who are horrified by their country’s activities. They are committed to ending apartheid and want to take decisive action to do it. They decide the best thing they can do for the cause is to detonate small devices that blow hundreds of anti-apartheid leaflets into the air, which gets them dubbed “the Leaflet Bombers.”

In short order, Jenkin and Lee are both sentenced to Pretoria Prison for White Males (like everything else in South Africa, the prisons are segregated), Jenkin for twelve years, Lee for eight. Lee makes his first escape attempt before he’s even left the courthouse. At the prison, Jenkin and Lee are befriended by legendary anti-apartheid activist Denis Goldberg (another real-life figure, played by Ian Hart), who was sentenced to four life sentences, alongside Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu (both of whom were imprisoned elsewhere). Goldberg commands the respect of his fellow political prisoners, and steers Jenkin and Lee away from inmates who are in for crimes like murder.

Jenkin sees escape as another way of making a revolutionary statement, as well as a path to taking more action on the outside. Lee agrees. Another prisoner, the hotheaded Frenchman Leonard, is more concerned about being reunited with his young son. But how can they possibly get out of this seemingly airtight prison? Goldberg thinks their plan is crazy and probably suicidal, but doesn’t go so far as to try to prevent it.

Radcliffe, no stranger to depicting youthful idealism and fervor, is excellent as the terrified but determined Jenkin. Webber is equally strong as Lee, and Hart is magnetic as the committed, articulate Goldberg. Winter is convincingly emotional as Leonard, though the character is more erratically written than those based directly on real people.

There is a sense of old-fashioned filmmaking to ESCAPE FROM PRETORIA, and not just because it’s set before the era of high technology. The film will be especially endearing to viewers who love to hone in on how to, for example, make tools that look innocuous and can be easily hidden.

Director Francis Annan and his co-writer L.H. Adams feel free to make the heroes ordinary men who are actually good, fighting against something that is purely evil. We’re not asked to sympathize with anybody who is upholding apartheid, while the worst thing that can be said about any of the political prisoners is that they don’t want to risk getting shot during a jailbreak. There isn’t a lot of ruminating on choices. It’s also refreshing, and realistic under the circumstances, that it never occurs to the protagonists to use violence. They want freedom, not vengeance.

All of this may make ESCAPE FROM PRETORIA sound simplistic, but its straightforward storytelling is a relief. Nobody feels the need to go through obligatory character moments dictated by an executive. The film and its makers trust us to understand the obvious, and get on with the title premise. It’s effective and it fulfills its apparent goals, dramatizing a historical incident with few frills and plenty of tension. This is not in any way meant to criticize nuance or shades of gray, or even violence, in filmmaking. It’s just that, once in awhile, it feels like an escape for the audience to see something aimed at grownups that has ingenuity, without having to show “very fine” (or even deeply flawed) people on both sides.

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