Old lag Frank Perry (Cox) recruits fixer Brodie (Cunningham), hardman Lenny (Fiennes) and dealer Viv (Jorge) for a daring prison break. But can they pull it off under the nose of vengeful top con Rizza (Lewis)?
In British crime films, jail is where characters emerge from in the first reel or are sent to at the end. Though a staple of American cinema, you have to scratch around to find any British prison dramas - Joseph Losey’s The Criminal; Borstal-set Scum; women’s prison picture Scrubbers; The Pot Carriers. By default, the screen image of UK prisons is Porridge. Rupert Wyatt’s feature debut, therefore, covers fresh territory. What impresses immediately is the film’s grim, oppressive atmosphere. This prison, overcrowded and understaffed (we barely see any warders and never a higher-up), is packed with obviously dangerous human animals. The sense of threat is constant. Wyatt uses minimal dialogue (in here, you shouldn’t trust people who talk a lot) and makes the most of the battered, haunted faces of a varied and interesting cast. Visually, we have a limited palette of institutional ugliness, but the film runs on a scary soundscape of clanging doors, distant screams, nerve-shredding buzzers and baying, jeering crowds.
The Escapist cuts between the breakout attempt, which involves breaching a series of barriers to get into the tunnels under London, and the motivations and preparations, which place the conspirators in more danger from the top convict (a creepily soft-spoken Damian Lewis) than the authorities. A problem with most prison break stories is that only two outcomes are possible. This one blurs the inevitability by going from the intensely physical business of struggling with concrete, steel, earth, water and electrified rails to a slightly airier, almost Twilight Zone-angle. Eventually, The Escapist becomes a version of a famous, much-adapted story - but it’s gripping and strong enough to delay the penny-drop moment until almost the final scene.
And, of course, Brian Cox is a national treasure, the nearest thing we’ve got to a hardman icon like Spencer Tracy or Jean Gabin, and probably a better actor than either. Here, the perennial supporting actor gets one of his too-rare starring roles and grips the screen throughout. Someone needs to give this man more leads.
At last, a British crime movie thats as good as its pitch sounds: Brian Cox trying to break out of prison. Do you need to know any more to want to see it?