We do have a thing as audiences for people escaping from prison, don’t we? Whether The Great Escape, Escape From Alcatraz, Escape to Victory or The Shawshank Redemption, we are particularly fond of stories of those wrongfully imprisoned who set about trying to gain their freedom by any means necessary, even if that path means crawling through unsightly sewage pipes and other such locales.
It’s been a while, though, since the last good one and it’s British filmmaker Francis Annan this time who takes a stab at the sub-genre with his debut feature. We are transported back to the late 1970s in South Africa where the Apartheid is continuing and the fate of the nation is in serious jeopardy from different political movements.
One such example is the ANC, a white activist group accused of spreading propaganda messages across the country, fuelling the unrest further to the point that the police are arresting some of its members, including Tim Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe) and Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber), who are quickly sentenced to years behind bars. But, they have a plan to fix that.
Based on the novel by Jenkin, the film does a decent job of portraying not just what was going on in the outside world – an opening sequence showcases just how brutal and hostile everything was back then – but indeed what was unfolding inside. There were various degrees of violence and vicious behaviour towards those seen as enemies of the state and whilst there isn’t too much shown, Annan’s thoughtful handling of the material is such that you still feel everything that went on to various degrees.
Aside from the sensitive, subtle approach to some truly heartbreaking material this one never really connects, feeling distant and uninspired. The cast perform well enough despite some truly dodgy accents and wigs, but the battle against such things wilfully and do just enough to keep the film afloat. Radcliffe again showcases his range post-Potter but he’s certainly had better days, whilst the brilliant Ian Hart adds some much needed class to proceedings as fellow inmate Denis Goldberg.
But for a thriller about a prison escape it sure does lack any sense of tension: it’s slow and ponderous when it should be explosive and dynamic, and while, granted, this is more of a character piece, it runs out of steam very quickly and meanders its way to its underwhelming finale. There’s some sparks, mainly around the fashioning of a key to open the cell door, but it never really replicates such moments again.
File under “decent yet unspectacular”.
Thriller | UK, 2019 | 12A | 6th March 2020 (UK) | Cinema, Digital Download | Dir.Francis Annan | Daniel Radcliffe, Ian Hart, Daniel Webber, Mark Leonard Winter