Fighting for what is right can get you into a lot of trouble, especially if you were arguing against apartheid in 1970s South Africa like the two protagonists in this 2020 biopic movie, Escape from Pretoria.
Indeed it all begins when Tim Jenkin and Stephen Lee, two young African National Congress activists, end up in court for distributing propaganda material.
The judge summarily convicted them as subversive terrorists and subsequently imprisoned in Pretoria‘s maximum security prison, considered one of the safest and strictest in South Africa.
An island of fear in the country’s capital, intended primarily for political prisoners and high-profile prisoners who opposed the regime and ended up forever in these cramped and overcrowded cells, with poor sanitary conditions and a general climate of violence and intimidation.
Despite the hardships, these friends show incredible determination from day one, studying how the guards’ routine worked and seeking a weakness to organize an escape plan.
Many other prisoners try to dissuade them, believing the feat impossible. Among them was the notorious Denis Goldberg, a former engineer and resistance leader arrested in 1963, along with many other comrades in the cause, including Nelson Mandela.
However, Tim and Stephen do not give up. After some futile attempts, they discover how to reproduce the guards’ keys by carving them into the wood in the prison workshops.
At that point, Leonard Fontaine joins the team, a French prisoner who initially seems hostile but is instead highly resolute in breaking out to re-embrace his family.
With great patience and intelligence, the group begins to practice by sneaking out of their cells at night, trying to learn the building’s map and find a path that will lead them to freedom.
When brains trump brute force
The 2020 biopic, Escape from Pretoria demonstrates how sometimes actual events can be just as surprising as movie stories.
Its production was entrusted to Francis Annan and his team, who faithfully recreated the controversial and racist atmosphere of the apartheid era.
With simplicity in staging and natural photography, we are immediately inside both the South African urban settings, with the army and police cracking down on daily protests, and in the bare, dirty interior of the hellish Pretoria prison.
The screenplay was by Annan in collaboration with L.H. Adams, taking inspiration from the book Escape from Pretoria, written by one of the real-life protagonists, Tim Jenkin.
Besides the important political and emotional themes, the plot also unfolds as a compelling and passionate thriller.
Jail sequences and tense moments are skillfully executed, maintaining a tight and engaging pace with breathtaking scenes that will keep the viewer with bated breath and hearts in their throats.
The inevitable downside of any biopic is, of course, the absence of surprises, at least for enthusiasts of South African history and culture who already know the story’s outcome.
However, the primary appeal of Escape from Pretoria lies in reliving the epic of these daring idealists, admiring the courage and persistence by which they ingeniously win their freedom.
A small and forgotten true fable where commitment and tenacity break down the most impassable barriers and open wide the most closed doors, literally and figuratively.
Indeed, it is essential to remember that more than a decade would pass after the historic escape of Tim Jenkin and Stephen Lee before the apartheid regime system began to crumble and disappear into the horror of the past where it deserved to end.
The faces behind the bars of injustice
After briefly looking at the film’s plot, direction, and political sides, it is worth mentioning the terrific cast, which, considering the prison genre, obviously involves a predominantly male group of actors.
The first name standing out is Daniel Radcliffe, known to the general public as Harry Potter. However, reducing his talent to that role would be unfair since he has since starred in several other excellent movies, such as Guns Akimbo, which I had recently recommended.
Here Radcliffe humbly steps into the dirty, nervous sweat-stained shoes of Tim Jenkin, the protagonist and author of the book of the same name around which the movie revolves.
Alongside him, we find Daniel Webber as Stephen Lee, the friend and fellow sufferer sentenced to eight years in prison, up from the twelve imposed on Jenkin.
Interestingly, the two protagonists are not agile or particularly strong individuals, just ordinary people with simple and practical ideas who enact an escape plan for which the prison system was unprepared.
Another significant element is the presence of Mark Leonard Winter as Leonard Fontaine, a character made up for the film as the third inmate among the escapees.
Indeed, his participation is a tribute to all those trapped in the prison system, such as resistance leader Denis Goldberg, masterfully played by Ian Hart.
The latter gives life to a weary but courageous character who finds new strength and determination in their escape that no one believes in.
Although Escape from Pretoria has not received much promotion in 2020, I am happy to see many positive opinions and reviews circulating on the web about this compelling movie.