The Escapist, 101 mins, rated MA15+, opens in cinemas 15 July 2009.


(This is my review as published in the July 2009 issue of The New South Wales Law Society Journal)

The veteran Scottish actor Brian Cox stars in The Escapist, a new British/Irish prison drama from first-time feature director Rupert Wyatt.

Cinemagoers will probably recognise Brian Cox, but perhaps not by name. He’s appeared in over 50 feature films, including David Fincher’s Zodiac, as US lawyer Melvin Belli (LSJ, May 2007), Woody Allen’s Match Point (2005), as the family patriarch, and in cult cable TV series Deadwood (2004), as actor/manager Jack Langrishe. He first came to the attention of audiences playing the original Dr Hannibal Lecktor/Lecter in Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1985).

Usually a supporting player, here Cox makes an unusual lead, playing Frank Perry, a “lifer”, who’s been in prison so long that he’s completely institutionalised. He doesn’t bother anyone and no one bothers him. His only friend is Brodie (Liam Cunningham, last seen arguing vehemently as the Priest in the central scene of Hunger (LSJ, Oct 2008)). Brodie’s knowledge is the key to a successful escape.

When Frank receives some news about his family, he abruptly decides he must escape. To do this, he assembles a motley crew, including Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love, 1998) as hard man, Lenny, and Brazilian actor Seu Jorge (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, 2004), who deals drugs within the prison.

A malevolent inmate that the team must deal with is Rizza (Damian Lewis). It is he, rather than the authorities, who’s in charge. Lewis, best known for his leading role in the HBO WW2 mini-series Band of Brothers, also stars in the US TV series Life. He is one compelling element of an ensemble cast that includes some of today’s best British and Irish actors.

Apart from the cast, the most notable thing about The Escapist is its fractured narrative. Unlike many prison pictures, this one begins with the escape. Four hardened-looking criminals punch their way through a concrete floor – in a nod to one of the great crime caper pictures, Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955). But who are these people? What has motivated them to escape together? All we know to begin with is their names, their crimes, and the lengths of their sentences. It’s an interesting start, because of course in prison, many (like Perry here) choose to keep their personal lives to themselves.

The film then flashes back and forward between the plotting of the escape and the escape itself, gradually revealing the motivation of each character and the machinations that enable the escape. In a way it follows the formula for the standard prison picture, but the unusual narrative, the stylish production design, and the fine character actors hold your interest to the end.

The filmmakers have managed to turn a disused cigarette factory into a believable – if somewhat stylised – Victorian prison (the production designer’s father was a prison warder). A few scenes were filmed at Dublin’s Kilmainham Jail – now a national monument. But it’s all internal shots until the very end, so there’s a real sense of claustrophobia that adds to the suspense.

Still, not everything in the film is plausible: the way in which the prisoners manufacture a diamond saw is pretty hard to swallow, and the escape route, while thrilling, involves one or two unlikely twists. But by that time you are so committed to the success of the escape, you can only grit your teeth and keep hoping.

The final few moments reveal something clever about the film’s title. Suddenly we are forced to re-evaluate everything we’ve seen, as The Escapist’s moving denouement reminds us that there is more than one kind of freedom.