By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 2, 2009)
Shakespeare in gloves: Joseph Fiennes fights dirty.
I always face prison dramas with trepidation. While there have been outstanding ones produced over the years, it’s one genre that has gone a bit hoary. What more could they possibly do with it? I sometimes amuse myself by ticking off my mental checklist of prison drama clichés . I played this little game while screening The Escapist, the feature film debut for British writer-director Rupert Wyatt:
Shiv in the kidneys? Check.
Suffocation by pillow? Check.
Shower rape scene? Check.
Brutal fistfight (with wagering) while guards look the other way? Check.
Someone takes an “accidental” header from the upper cell block? Check.
Cat-calls and wolf-whistles for the “new meat” as they’re processed? Check.
Drug vending via rolling book cart? Check.
And of course, a daring, seemingly impossible escape plan? Check.
Just as I was thinking that I had The Escapist sussed and settled in to brace for another intense (if predictable) British prison drama along the lines of Scum, McVicar or The Criminal, I soon found myself sitting up a little straighter. Then, before I knew it, I was literally on the edge of my seat, breathlessly caught up in an exciting and compelling story that is capped off by an unexpectedly mind-blowing finale.
The story is set in a London facility that vibes vintage Wormwood Scrubs (in reality, Dublin’s Kilmainham Jail). Brian Cox stars as an aging, life-tired convict named Frank Perry, who is doing life without parole. When he learns that his daughter has fallen gravely ill as a result of her struggle with drug addiction, he devises an escape plan that involves literally worming one’s way through the city’s hellish labyrinth of underground infrastructure to freedom. He enlists a team of four disparate personalities (played to the hilt by Dominic Cooper, Seu Jorge, Liam Cunningham and Joseph Fiennes)-who are bonded together by a fierce desire to escape their bleak milieu.
The storyline is relatively simple, but it’s really all about the journey (in this case, both literally and figuratively). The attention grabber in Wyatt’s screenplay (co-written with Daniel Hardy) is the flashback/flash forward construct; it’s an oft-used narrative trick that can be distracting or gimmicky, but it’s very effective here.
As the escape itself unfolds, the events leading up to it are revealed in a deliberate, Chinese puzzle-box fashion. With this device, the filmmakers build dramatic tension on two fronts, and by the time they intersect, you’ll have to remind yourself to breathe. What’s killing me here is that I can’t reveal the classic crime thriller that this most closely recalls-as that would be tantamount to a major spoiler!
The actors are all superb, particularly Liam Cunningham and the Scottish-born Cox, who I think is underrated. He’s one of thos skilled, “all purpose” character actors whose name may escape you, but you definitely have seen him. He worked extensively in British television from the early 70s thru the mid-80s, but didn’t register a blip with U.S. audiences until his memorable turn as (the original) Hannibal Lecktor in Michael Mann’s 1986 crime thriller, Manhunter.
I have to admit, I didn’t recognize Joseph Fiennes until the credits rolled; I guess that proves he is more of a chameleon than I had previously thought. Damian Lewis is also quite good as the prison kingpin, and Steven MacKintosh delivers an edgy, unpredictable performance as his dangerous, perpetually tweaked brother.
I think Wyatt will be a director to watch. I can tell that he has studied the masters. There are echoes of Carol Reed, particularly in a sequence that takes the escapees through the London sewers; the expressionistic use of chiaroscuro lighting recalls The Third Man. He’s not overly flashy, and most refreshingly, does not appear to be trying to remake Reservoir Dogs (like so many first-time out directors are these days). There’s no escaping one fact: this is one terrific film.