It is an unfortunate reality that in the year 2020, the abhorrent values of racism still run rampant across multiple levels of societies throughout the world. Although the Civil Rights Movement in the United States took place during the 1960s, people of color still fight against oppression on a daily basis in America. One could find a similar story in essentially every region of the developed and undeveloped world. As for the country of South Africa, the dark days of apartheid finally came to an end in 1994 after nearly a half-century, leaving behind dreadful scars that not even time can completely heal. From director Francis Annan and co-writer LH Adams, the new Momentum Pictures production Escape from Pretoria serves as a necessary reminder of these wounds which we, as responsible human beings, must never forget.
Adapted from Tim Jenkin’s autobiography Inside Out: Escape from Pretoria Prison, this film examines the 1979 true story of Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe), Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber), and Leonard Fontaine (Mark Winter), three social activists and members of the African National Congress who had been imprisoned for their radical actions. All three of these men were, indeed, white, and were viewed as traitors by those that supported the apartheid. However, this trio’s mindset can be summed up by Jenkin’s quote in the opening narration of the film: “We didn’t want a life based on lies and indifference. We wanted to join the ongoing struggle for a democratic and free South Africa, not based on racial discrimination.” Still, even within this resistance group, there were opposing approaches as to what it meant for each individual to fulfill their duty. Pretoria Prison was an institution with many inmates whose stories looked similar to Jenkin, Lee, and Fontaine, but, many of whom, including Denis Goldberg (Ian Hart), believed that serving out their sentences in prison, however unjust they may be, would be the most impactful form of protest. Though they would retain their lives, this form of martyrdom, to a certain degree, would, in their eyes, empower those on the outside to continue fighting the good fight. On the other hand, Jenkin and his two compatriots are determined to return to the real world and rejoin the direct and immediate frontline battles of activism. This ideological schism of sorts among the anti-apartheid allies presented itself as a very fascinating dynamic to be explored in the crux of the story. How ironic that an organization dedicated to unity would experience division within its core. Obviously, this is a much different form of disunity compared to the indefensible horrors of racism; there was no malice or animosity between the prisoners with conflicting views. Nevertheless, this irony is unmistakable.
As one would expect from the title of the film, the narrative chronicles the painstaking process of a prison breakout. Jenkin and Lee are actually arrested and imprisoned together, with plans of escape always at the forefront of their intentions. They come into contact with Fontaine on the inside and realize that the strength of their diverse skillsets put together may eventually result in freedom. What follows is more than a year of obsessive scheming, calculating, and manual labor. The escape plan involves various odd objects and resources across the prison, which are constantly on the move from one place to another. The ultimate objective of Jenkin and company is to construct a series of keys that will unlock every door standing between them and the outside world. The attention to detail in the technical filmmaking is as impressive as the mindful, observant nature of the three protagonists. The production efforts of director of photography Geoffrey Hall and editor Nick Fenton blend and flow together like a poem. The montages displaying the prisoners’ ingenuity and resourcefulness are effortlessly presented. As the viewer, you can tangibly feel the perspectives of the characters as they fit together numerous mental and physical puzzle pieces. The intense, subjective shot-selection is precisely crafted and extremely effective. Specifically, in the night scenes, the sparse lighting is incorporated with maximum potency. There is undeniable intention placed in every corner of every frame, but, it is the output from supervising sound designer Chris Goodes that unlocks the true potential of this film’s palpability. The standard sounds of a prison, such as the clanging of metal cell doors or the plodding of footsteps on a barren hallway, are combined with supplementary sounds critical to the story. Think of a makeshift wooden key slowly turning in a lock mechanism, and the hushed, strained breathing of anxious inmates in the dark looking to break out. The unbelievable tension and suspense are directed with immaculate proficiency and, David Hirschfelder’s flexible musical score adapts to the situations with ease, complementing every other visual and audible aspect of the movie with a sophisticated, multifaceted technique. The technical components of this film harmonize like a strangely gorgeous, anxiety-inducing orchestral symphony.
Taking all of these things into consideration, it would not be unfair to say that there were a few missed opportunities in regard to the inspection of the story’s richer themes of race relations. This is the (mostly) true account of a group of white prisoners in an all-white prison. Any relationships between these men with people of color in the outside world are largely overlooked. Indeed, both Jenkin and Lee had Black girlfriends, who had significant roles in the men’s lives as they fought for equality. Unfortunately, we are shown little of anything from these individuals outside of a brief appearance at the court sentencing for Jenkin and Lee at the beginning of the film. Perhaps a more personal glimpse into these intimate connections between the races could have illustrated a more compelling portrait of the characters’ journeys. Granted, as there were no people of color within the prison, the only storytelling route by which to display these relationships would have been by flashback or prologue. Thus, although it is understandable from a logistical point of view why these scenes were absent, there still remains a feeling of wanting just a little bit more.
Escape from Pretoria may not capitalize on every single opportunity with which it is provided, but the importance of the lessons communicated cannot be overstated. Racism still rears its ugly head on a daily basis and we cannot turn a blind eye. The extraordinary passion of three men in their odyssey for tolerance and acceptance is truly a beautiful thing. Imagine what could be accomplished if we all banded together with this same devotion and faithfulness in the fight for equality everywhere.
In theaters, on VOD, and digital March 6th, 2020.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.
*This review was originally published by Elements of Madness on March 4, 2020, at https://elementsofmadness.com/2020/03/04/escape-from-pretoria/.