I've been reviewing films for a few years now and the only reliable way I've found of telling if I'm watching a great film or one I'm really enjoying is if I don't start reviewing it whilst I'm watching it as I become so caught up in what is happening on screen that I don't bother to intellectualise it. So far this year, a handful of films have done this; No Country For Old Men managed it, as did There Will Be Blood, Cloverfield and Iron Man. I can now add The Escapist to this list.
Considering we are constantly told that we've got prisons so stuffed with criminals that they're bursting out like an over-filled donut, Britain has a surprising dearth of prison movies in its cinematic heritage, so it's interesting to see a British take on a genre that has been very well worn by others.
That's the first thing that needs to be said about The Escapist; it isn't original. It follows the conventions of prison escape movies very closely, from its cast of characters to its plot points and narrative development. The movie's plot starts when Frank Perry (Brian Cox) receives a letter from his wife, the first in 14 years, bringing him ill news about his daughter. He's the elderly leader who will assemble the no doubt ragtag group who will attempt to break out. And, indeed, he does. He quickly gets tunneling expert Brody (Liam Cunnigham), strong man Lenny Drake (Joseph Fiennes) and prison pharmacist (read: drug manufacturer) Viv Batista (Seu Jorge), all of whom have something to gain by escaping from the prison.
So far, so standard. Any of these characters can be found in any number of prison escape movies, and you'd be hard pressed not to watch the sequence in which a group of new prisoners are brought into the prison amidst catcalls and threats of rape with thinking of The Shawshank Redemption, and the inclusion of human obstacles in the form of prison boss, Rizza, (Damien Lewis) and his equally psychotic brother, Tony, (Steven Mackintosh) would only seem to reinforce the idea that this is a by-the-numbers journey into a genre that hardly represents new territory.
However, what stops the film from falling into these pitfalls, even as its characters find themselves stumbling through their own, is the verve and freshness that director and co-writer Rupert Wyatt brings to proceedings, both in his direction and the script. All the characters, though they may be stock types, completely avoid caricature or easy categorisation; Frank isn't all-knowing or wise-cracking, he's a man trying to make the most of a bad situation and willing to do whatever he can to make his escape possible; Lenny Drake isn't a dumb all-muscles, no brain brawler, he's a wily, intelligent man of violence. Probably the only characters who conform to type are the villainous ones, with both Rizza and Tony being little more than two-dimensional psychos. Fortunately, both Mackintosh and Lewis (who, if I was pushed, I'd pick as the stand-out performer, though it's a very close call) are so forceful that it barely matters.
Wyatt's directorial choices are also hugely important in defining the film. The story unravels over two parallel plotlines; one detailing the formation of the team and the preparations they have to undertake and the threats they must overcome in the build-up to the escape; the other detailing the escape itself. This allows the film to structure itself around juxtaposition of events and themes, we see what will happen to the characters during the escape, then cut back to the men trying to figure out how they'll pull it off. This is initially very jarring, and the first few times the narrative jumped around I found myself wondering if perhaps the film would have benefited from a more linear style, but gradually it begins to make sense and you realise that this structure, rather than just being a stylistic tool or an attempt to manipulate the emotions of the audience, is actually integral to the themes of the film and I realised that it would have been an infinitely weaker film if it had just gone from A to B without detouring to C and D along the way.
What's most important about the film, though, is that it doesn't forget to be fun. For all its artistry and characterisation, it still manages to tell a story and the relentless drive of the storytelling is one of the best things about it. From the moment we see Lenny Drake start smashing through concrete to the moments the credits roll, the film barely stops for breath. This is large due to the mix of slow-burning conversations, plotting and moments of quiet tension and non-stop chases that the two different timelines of the film provide, but its also because the story is so tightly wound that I spent all my time trying to unravel it and work out how it fitted together. It feels very much like a film that has been made out of time, with its 70s style opening and credits, you get the feeling that you're discovering a lost gem, and this mix of adventure and intelligence really reinforced that notion in my mind.
There's also a wonderfully metaphysical side to the film, all to do with the idea of escape and the more elegiac notion of freedom and that really appealed to me. The film was already an interesting character study-cum-action thriller, as well as an exploration of masculinity, so this extra sprinkling of philosophy really pushed it over from being an entertaining and polished thrill ride into one of the best films I've seen this year.
It's not without flaws, I think that the incidental music used throughout, whilst excellent, is a tad oppressive. That's probably the intention of course, but the ambient noises used throughout (slamming doors, shouting, the almost lifelike sounds of a prison) do much more to establish that sense of confinement than the music ever coul, even if the thumping strings used throughout really do get the blood pumping. However, the two instances where the film uses Leonard Cohen's version of 'The Partisan' are exceptions to this rule since the song chimes so perfectly with the images and ideas of the film. So that's my first gripe. The second would be that, for fear of giving anything away, the ending over does things a bit. There is an important montage at the end of the film that puts its point across brilliantly in 30 seconds, then continues for another 3 minutes.
Anyway, I loved The Escapist, even with its flaws. It's a bold, driven and intelligent piece of British cinema that takes a story that could have all too easily become one of those laddy heist films and really does something with it. Terrific.