Current Issue #488

Film Review:
Escape From Pretoria

Daniel Webber and Daniel Radcliffe in Escape From Pretoria

Francis Annan’s filming of anti-apartheid activist Tim Jenkin’s memoir received huge publicity when it was shot in Adelaide last year. Much of which was due to its star Daniel Radcliffe, and with the film quietly hitting the internet last week he’s certainly the best reason to watch.

Daniel is strong as sociology student Jenkin, and this project is another example of the former Harry Potter star’s tendency to choose smaller, more challenging roles since the blockbuster franchise used up all its magic close to a decade ago. His recent output has included Jungle (another Australia-shot true story), Kill Your Darlings (as Allen Ginsberg) and the irksome Swiss Army Man (in which he plays a farting corpse), and he brings a lot of gravitas to these parts. Certainly, this film might well have not been made without him.

Director (and co-screenwriter) Annan’s film opens almost immediately with that sequence, shot on Pirie Street (in between Pulteney and Frome) and yes, it is a little jarring for Adelaideans, although those outside this state might also feel that it doesn’t exactly look like 1970s South Africa. Indeed, this was shot exclusively in SA, with locations in Mitcham, Port Adelaide and beyond, and with Redruth Gaol (now a museum) in Burra, Adelaide Gaol and the former Holden factory at Elizabeth standing in for Pretoria Local Prison. And was shifting the production from one SA to another a budgetary decision, or because such apartheid-era stories remain a fraught subject in South Africa?

Radcliffe’s Jenkin narrates and we watch as he and Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber) are arrested after illegally planting a leaflet bomb that distributes pro-ANC (African National Congress) protest material in Cape Town back in 1978. Tim is quickly sentenced to 12 years in Pretoria and Stephen eight, and the rest of the narrative is almost completely set therein, as the fairly clichéd authority figures try their best to spiritually break these two young men who have supposedly dared spit in the face of the great country that raised them. Ah, patriotism.

The pair set about establishing some way of escaping, with help from almost legendary inmate Denis Goldberg (the English Ian Hart a.k.a. Radcliffe’s antagonist – spoiler alert – from the original Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone). Much suspense is wrought from these slow, sweaty setpieces, and Daniel, Stephen, Ian and others act their socks off trying to make us fear for them (and, it must be said, grappling with the South African accent).

Despite that, however, there are problems here, notably with the two-dimensional writing and playing of the guards, all of whom are power-tripping, viciously racist sadists who yell endlessly and wearyingly. And yes, maybe they were exactly like that, but the result isn’t as compelling as other entries in film and television’s long tradition of big, bad ‘screws’. One roars, “You are the white Mandela… the most deluded of them all!”, in Jenkin’s face, and you do have to wonder if he genuinely said something so suspiciously movie-sounding.

However, Radcliffe gives it everything under a ratty wig and peering out from very ‘70s spectacles, and almost makes you forget these issues. You really want to see him break out, and he eventually does, and that’s not a spoiler because it’s common knowledge that Jenkin wrote his 1987 book when he was basically a fugitive in London.

And you’ve read the title too.

Reviewer Rating

Escape From Pretoria (MA) is now streaming on all video on demand services

DM Bradley

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Adelaide-filmed Daniel Radcliffe thriller Escape From Pretoria is out Friday

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