“You are the white Mandela,” says a ham-faced warden, all but spitting in the face of anti-apartheid activist Tim Jenkin upon his arrival at Pretoria Local Prison in 1978. It’s not intended as a compliment: “The most deluded of them all,” the warden adds, lest it be taken as such. As clunkily deployed in the script for “Escape from Pretoria,” however, the line acts as a shortcut to nobility, in a tight genre exercise that has scant time for such elaborate niceties as character development and social context. Adapted from Jenkin’s memoir of his time served — and resourcefully cut short — as a South African political prisoner in the country’s darkest days of white supremacy, Francis Annan’s film works effectively as a straight-up jailbreak thriller, well-oiled in greasy B-movie tradition. It’s when it shoots for more historical import that it falls somewhat short.
Jenkin’s book of the same title was published in 1987, when he was still living as a fugitive from nominal justice in London. It’s surprising that it’s taken this long to reach the screen, given how sveltely his gripping story fits into a genre-film uniform. The last 30-odd years have seen such a wealth of diverse, resonant personal histories emerge from the ashes of apartheid — not least that of the actual, not-white Mandela — that “Escape from Pretoria” could well have missed its moment entirely.
As it is, it’s been done cheaply and (sort of) cheerfully as an Australian production by British writer-director Francis Annan, focusing heavily on suspense mechanics as if to modestly understate its factual heft. The casting of Daniel Radcliffe as Jenkin lends it some marquee appeal, but this still feels like efficient VOD fodder, sure to age as memorably as “Stander,” that other blandly internationalized biographical romp pulled from the same passage of South African history. Meanwhile, it may struggle to find much of a fanbase in its own country of setting, where audiences might reasonably wonder why at least one South African actor couldn’t have been cast in a principal role.
Sporting a squirrelly shag wig and a valiantly attempted but wayward Cape Town accent, Radcliffe plays Jenkin, a middle-class sociology student turned underground activist for the African National Congress, with his own brand of puppyish but righteous commitment. Given the limited backstory filled in by Annan and L.H. Adams’ workaday screenplay, the actor’s signature anxious-earnest mien is leaned on a lot here, as is his overly explanatory voiceover, which provides a broad primer on apartheid for any uninformed viewers, along with a reminder that “freedom and equality should be fought for at all costs.”
For Jenkin, that cost is a 12-year prison sentence, handed down after he and his best friend Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber, tersely charismatic in a thin part) were caught planting a leaflet bomb to distribute ANC protest flyers in central Cape Town. Banished to the vast prison complex of Pretoria, the country’s administrative capital, Jenkin and Lee are protectively counseled by veteran liberal political prisoner Denis Goldberg (British veteran Ian Hart, giving the character a geezer-y air), who advises them to keep their heads down and to serve their time with dignity as “prisoners of conscience.” The youngsters, countering that they are instead prisoners of war, immediately set about an escape plan regardless. Jenkin hatches a plan to whittle wooden facsimiles of the keys to every door separating them from the outside world — an almost naively simple scheme that necessitates a complex network of hiding places and bluffs, as vindictive guards begin to suspect something is afoot.
The real-life Goldberg was much more supportively involved in the prison-break strategy; if the script does him something of a disservice for the purposes of greater narrative friction, that’s not the fastest and loosest it plays with facts. The third partner in the escape, Egyptian-born activist Alex Moumbaris, has been fictionalized as enigmatic Frenchman Leonard (Mark Leonard Winter), who has no discernible history or motivation at all, while two black allies in the plan are marginal presences at best. Characterization takes a distant back seat to the ingenious practicalities of the mission itself. Once the plan is set in motion, the film itself feels unlocked: As a re-eenacted chapter of anti-apartheid history, “Escape from Pretoria” may not feel entirely authentic, but it knows its prison-movie terrain, from Alcatraz to Shawshank, inside out.
As our central trio trace a taut treasure trail of keyholes and cupboards, Annan’s direction settles into a smooth groove of high-tension setpieces, teased out to breath-suspending effect. Shooting on location in Adelaide, Australia — a handsome but none-too-convincing stand-in for the South African highveld in exterior scenes — DP Geoffrey Hall keeps the camera moves antsy but not fussy. Nick Fenton’s editing, meanwhile, maintains a keen sense of physical space and strain, not least in one comically queasy scene where a dropped key must be retrieved with the aid of a broomstick and chewing gum. Sketchy as it is on human details, “Escape from Pretoria” gets by on such practical nuts and bolts.