Details: (MA15+), 101 mins, In Cinemas 16 July 2009, United Kingdom, English
Synopsis: Frank Perry is an institutionalized convict twelve years into a life sentence without parole. When his estranged daughter falls ill, he is determined to make peace with her before it's too late. He develops an ingenious escape plan, and recruits a dysfunctional band of escapists - misfits with a mutual dislike for one other but united by their desire to escape their hell hole of an existence. Much of the action takes place within the tunnels, sewers and underground rivers of subterranean London.
Prison drama breaks all the rules – and wins.
Marking a superbly accomplished debut by 36-year-old English writer-director Rupert Wyatt, The Escapist is a thrilling, highly inventive twist on the prison break genre.
The film breaks with convention not just by starting with the escape by a ragtag bunch of prisoners from a barbaric, medieval-looking prison, then rewinding to the days that lead to the break-out. While the characters are sharply drawn, we’re told little or nothing about the crimes they committed or about the lives they led on the outside. And the ending is a stunner, a masterstroke of creativity.
Wyatt, who cut his teeth on short films and episodic TV, says he was inspired by a 19th century short story by Ambrose Bierce, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, which tells of a hanged man whose seemingly miraculous escape is reversed and explained by the hallucinations he experiences moments before death.
At its (very large) heart, the screenplay by Wyatt and Daniel Hardy, another rookie, is a poignant tale of redemption. The central figure is Frank (Brian Cox), an old Irish lag who seems resigned to spending the rest of his days behind bars. But Frank begins to plot an escape when he learns his 20-year-old daughter is a junkie who’s just had an overdose. “I got to see her, make things right,” he vows.
Seeing his chance after spotting a loose panel in the confession box and a flimsily-secured hatch in the laundry, he recruits a crew to carry out his plan: his new, young, vulnerable cellmate Lacey (Dominic Cooper), fellow Irishman Brodie (Liam Cunningham), master-thief/street fighter Lenny (Joseph Fiennes) and dreadlocked meth-chemist Batista (Brazilian Seu Jorge).
The mission appears jeopardised when predatory psychopath Tony (Steven Mackintosh), who makes moves on Lacey, overhears them plotting. That leads to a tense confrontation between Frank and Tony’s ruthless brother Rizza (Damian Lewis), who runs the jail. In a chilling exchange, Rizza leers, “You’ve got one thing going for you Frank – you’re too old to die young.”
From the frenetic opening as the jailbirds break a hole in the ground, then quickly drop through, the pace never lets up, and the acting is uniformly excellent. Wyatt and Hardy wrote the part specifically for Cox, who is the film’s moral centre: a world-weary soul filled with regret, who sees in Lacey the kind of man he once was, with a future he might have had if he’d made smarter choices. He speaks sparingly but conveys a lot with his eyes. The climax, which carries a significant emotional punch, caught me totally unawares.
The film takes place almost entirely in the bleak prison (Kilmainham Jail in Ireland) and below-ground, through a nightmarish network of tunnels, sewers and chambers. Liberal use of the steadycam puts the viewer right in the faces of the characters. Leonard Cohen’s haunting song The Partisan sets the tone in the opening scenes, and composer Benjamin Wallfisch’s score is a brilliant mix of percussive sounds, electronic dance and orchestral numbers.
A word of caution: This prison is a brutal place, so the film is not for the faint-hearted.
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