He had big plans to shoot Escape from Pretoria in South Africa a couple of years ago, but the money fell through. The production relocated to South Australia, which is not as silly as it sounds. The climate matches, the street architecture of Adelaide can be made to look like Cape Town in the ’70s (as long as you don’t need to see Table Mountain) and the film infrastructure is probably better than in most South African cities.
The British producers had been working on this story, based on the dramatic escape of three white political prisoners from the Pretoria Prison for White Males – since at least 2012. Funding from the South Australian Film Corporation made this an official UK/Australian co-production, with some inevitable compromises.
Most of the cast are Australian-born or resident, which accounts for some less-than-convincing South African accents, but Adelaide Gaol provides a convincing South African prison – and not for the first time. Breaker Morant was shot there in 1979 – right about the time that Tim Jenkin, Stephen Lee and Alex Moumbaris were breaking out of Pretoria in the real story.
Jenkin wrote the book on which the film is based. He and Lee were born in South Africa and went to England in the early 1970’s, joined the African National Congress in exile and were sent back as propaganda agents.
In the opening sequence of the film we see them set off a number of pamphlet ‘bombs’ in the streets of Cape Town. These devices could deliver hundreds of political leaflets in public places with a non-lethal bang.
Lee (Australian actor Daniel Webber) and Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe) actually operated for several months, but the film shows them getting caught in what looks like a first attempt. At a quick trial Lee gets eight years and Jenkin 12. The judge lectures them in stentorian tones about betraying the country that raised them.
The movie is all about the break, and Annan does a fine job. It’s tautly constructed, insanely tense and without a wasted scene. Shooting a movie in 29 days when you needed 40 sometimes helps with that. The cinematographer was the experienced Geoffrey Hall (Chopper, Red Dog, Australia Day) and he brings some lovely touches, accentuating the ingenuity of the escapees in crafting keys to unlock the many doors to freedom.
The doyen of the political prisoners at Pretoria is Denis Goldberg (Ian Hart), 15 years into a 22-year sentence. He is ANC royalty, having been sentenced in the 1964 Rivonia trial along with Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. Goldberg tells them they can try to escape if they want, but serving the full sentence is a political act, one that he chooses.
This is not quite accurate: Goldberg initially joined the escape plan, but pulled out when it became clear that only three men could realistically make it. The third man here is called Leonard Fontaine – which presumably means that Alex Moumbaris, who grew up in Australia before settling in France, did not co-operate with the film. Fontaine (Mark Leonard Winter) becomes a sort of match to Jenkin’s fire, pushing him to solve all the technical issues of their escape.
The pleasure here is in the fine detail, and Annan makes sure we feel every scrape of chisel on wood. The characterisations are not deep – especially the guards, who are either fat, stupid or mean – but that’s part of the genre. Radcliffe gives another strong performance as a man determined not to crack under pressure. We never lose sight of his doggedness, nor the cost for his nerves.
With so few new films opening, this one needs no excuses. And the timing could be worse: lockdown has perhaps made some of us appreciate more of what real prisoners go through.
Paul Byrnes is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.