Escape from Pretoria tells the real-life story of Tim Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe) and Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber), two white South African political prisoners who attempt to escape from Pretoria Central Prison in the late 1970s. The film is supposed to teach its audience about Jenkin’s escape and demonstrate how bad prisoners of war were treated in prison, while also being a jailbreak thriller. Unfortunately, Escape from Pretoria isn’t effective as a history lesson or as an effective thriller.
From clichés like classical music being played during what’s supposed to be a tense moment, to the wise old man and hot head who wants to see his kid, Escape from Pretoria doesn’t really offer anything new. Several characters fit into some archetype, with even the leads being somewhat boring and unsympathetic. That isn’t to say they’re bad people, but there isn’t enough effort put into why anyone should care for them other than the fact that they were activists during Apartheid. Seeing Jenkin find a solution to a problem and then be faced with another problem is presented in a way that makes it hard to keep up with after a while. It seems like the filmmakers realized this, because for one 20-minute stretch, Jenkin somehow manages to figure out the entire prison system and has keys made for every door he must unlock in order to escape from prison. If the filmmakers cut out a bit more time to explore Jenkin (Lee has close to nothing here. He’s part of the story, but he’s more difficult to care for than Jenkin), maybe their plight would be more worth investing in.
The thrills in Escape from Pretoria come in small, sporadic spurts. Many of these moments come from an incompetent slob of a guard, who easily loses focus and gets derailed, leaving every hope for a Mach 6 heartbeat lying on the ground injured and insulted. The closest the film gets to sweaty palm inducing levels is during a room raid by the prison ward. Otherwise, it may be hard to find anything pressing here.
There isn’t much to be learned from Escape from Pretoria and the events that occurred make perfect sense. The film is cohesive and not a terrible time, but if you’re looking for a well-crafted thriller, you’ll likely find it elsewhere.