Running time 102 minutes
Written by Daniel Hardy and Rupert Wyatt
Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Starring Brian Cox, Joseph Fiennes, Damian Lewis, Liam Cunningham, Seu Jorge
The prison escape movie—a tired genre—gets some fresh energy in The Escapist, a compelling, carefully written and totally gripping film from the U.K. that is acted with naturalism and conviction by a smashing cast. Made by the Irish Film Board with funds from the National Lottery reserved for the arts (why can’t we do that here?), The Escapist has already won numerous awards on the festival circuit, and I can see why.
It stars the versatile, always astounding Brian Cox as Frank Perry, a lifer whose grim routine changes when he receives a letter informing him that his only daughter is desperately ill after a drug overdose. Determined to break out and get to London for one last visit with the only person he’s ever loved unconditionally, Frank plans a daring escape with the aid of three other convicts (Joseph Fiennes, Liam Cunningham from the film Hunger, and Brazilian musician Seu Jorge, who are all perfect)—staking his life and expertise on a maneuver that involves elaborate prison blueprints to connect the air vents behind the dryers in the laundry with the shower drains that lead out through the sewers. Nothing unusual yet, but wait. Director Rupert Wyatt, making his feature-film debut, juxtaposes the clandestine eight-day digging and the clandestine rehearsals for the big break with the actual escape itself, mixing up time and action. This gives away some of the results too early, but there are still unexpected snafus and personality conflicts to detour the five prisoners before they reach the underground subway tracks that lead to the Charing Cross tube station. And, miracle of miracles, Mr. Wyatt does it without the usual CGI and high-tech special effects that make these epics look preposterous. Everything in The Escapist looks real for a reason. When the actors dig, they are really doing it all themselves. No painted on dirt or oil-brushed sweat here. This movie pays off, but looks like it was hell to make.
The great thing that emerges from the debris is the human element. You never know more than you should. You don’t even know what these men are in custody for. But you do see the hidden emotional elements, believed to be dead forever in their rusted souls, that rise to the surface in the interdependence of their group effort. Even hardened criminals have a heart. For Frank, redemption is triggered by the arrival of a terrified new cell mate named Lacey, played by Dominic Cooper, the young Lothario from both the wonderful The History Boys and the moronic Mamma Mia! Against his will, Frank is reminded of himself as a lost youth. Lacey is brutally beaten and raped by a monstrous sexual predator named Tony (Steven Mackintosh), the junkie brother of the “wing king” Rizza (Damian Lewis), and Rizza’s sadistic control of the prison population slowly turns into a wedge between the escape artists and their freedom. Frank resents this distraction from his goal, but here is a kid who clearly needs protection, and in odd ways he never thought possible, Frank finds in Lacey a mirror to lost innocence and a chance to regain some of his own value as a man. Ignoring Rizza’s warning (“You got one thing going for you, Frank—you’re too old to die young”), Frank makes a decision that changes the future of his own existence—and the outcome of the escape. No spoilers, please.
Physically violent and psychologically probing, The Escapist reminds me more than any other film of the sensational, groundbreaking TV series Oz, but it’s not really an action film. There’s not much excitement in the set pieces, and the restraint in both the direction and in Mr. Cox’s performance creates an austere depiction of the tedium of incarceration as well as the courage and strength needed to cope with a life sentence. As minimalism, it’s more Robert Bresson than Clint Eastwood. My only caveat is that the cross-cutting out of sequence sometimes interrupts the flow of the narrative. (Why aren’t filmmakers content to tell a story chronologically? Is that considered too “old-fashioned”?) Still, for a first feature, it’s a fine piece of work that passes 102 minutes swiftly, and Rupert Wyatt shows great promise. You won’t feel the need to escape from The Escapist.