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Review: ‘Escape From Pretoria’ hits the mark as apartheid-era prison thriller

Daniel Webber, left, and Daniel Radcliffe in the movie ‘Escape From Pretoria’
Daniel Webber, left, and Daniel Radcliffe in the movie “Escape From Pretoria.”
(Ian Routledge / Momentum Pictures)

In 1979, three anti-apartheid activists escaped from a South African jail, executing a complicated and daring plan that involved multiple makeshift wooden “keys” and the cooperation of their fellow prisoners — some of whom worried that a dramatic jailbreak would hurt their cause.

One of the escapees, Tim Jenkin, told his story in the 1987 book “Escape From Pretoria,” now a taut mid-budget thriller starring Daniel Radcliffe. Casting Radcliffe is an inspired choice, and not just because he has a quiet charisma. None of the heroes of this story were supermen. They were conscientious and compassionate — and in many cases more bookish than brawny.

It helps too that director Francis Annan (who also co-wrote the script with L.H. Adams) keeps the action focused on the peculiar mechanics of the escape, rather than on big political speeches. The rightness of these men’s cause is presented as self-evident. Though their internal debate is interesting, it’s less exciting than seeing prisoners sneaking around corners, trying to avoid getting caught.

This procedural quality to “Escape From Pretoria” — combined with an accomplished cast that includes Ian Hart as the anti-apartheid prisoner most opposed to Jenkin’s plan — adds some oomph to a movie that features limited sets, a simple story and none of the Hollywood polish of “The Shawshank Redemption.”

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Instead, the dilemma Jenkin faces is appealingly basic and elemental. He’s trapped in a cage, behind a dozen doors. Day by day, lock by lock, he finds a way out.

'Escape From Pretoria'
Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Playing: Starts March 6, Vintage Los Feliz 3; also on VOD.


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