Directed by Rubert Wyatt
Screenplay by Rubert Wyatt & Daniel Hardy
The delight at seeing an old hand character actor take centre stage is a disappointingly rare experience, particularly when their prestige as a supporting artist has led to what could quite easily qualify as typecast. Outside of independent productions, it barely ever happens, with studio heads more keen to push forward the image of the latest, often talentless but recognizable face and ultimately relying on the indispensable veterans to provide the necessary gravitas in small doses. Hence one of the many reasons why Rupert Wyatt’s 2008 thriller The Escapist puts a broad smile on one’s face.
Bucking the trend after years of being in the shadows, Brian Cox (who’s name has been rather re-appropriated of late by a pesky physicist) plays Frank Perry, a lifer doomed to spending the rest of his miserable days inside an unidentified an ominous prison. When he receives word that his daughter on the outside is dying, the news sparks him into life, concocting an escape plan with fellow inmates Liam Cunningham and Joseph Fiennes so he can be at her bedside. Of course, such plans rarely come off without a snag in cinemaland, and the proverbial spanner is thrown in the works by a variety of unforeseen situations, including the malignant influence of the block’s top dog, his junkie brother, and a new young arrival who Frank identifies with more than he should.
Exploiting a split chronological narrative, in which the group’s escape attempt through underground sewers and subway lines is shown alongside the events building up to it, The Escapist manages to retain a great deal of tension and suspense even when we at least think we’re watching a plot with an inevitable conclusion. This is a key strength brought about by debutant Wyatt, who would later helm the warmly received Rise of the Planet of the Apes. As well as bringing a creative sparkle and flair to proceedings, Wyatt also shows justified faith in his excellently judged cast, which is where Cox et al come to the fore.
Essentially with a blank canvas as far as characterization goes, each actor inhabits, and brings a distinctive identity to, their part. Cox is attention grabbing as the weary and cynical Perry, a man without hope who suddenly discovers the necessity to break out of his drudgery. It’s this apparently doomed optimism which drives the story, a newly discovered desire that is more of a last hurrah than a return to life. Strange as it may sound, all of this specific energy is channeled in a sublime display of subtle body language, renewed excitement and subtext infused tone. Give screen’s first Hannibal Lecter some limelight and he’ll show up the pretenders.
Elsewhere, there is typically solid and amiable work from Liam Cunningham as prison fixer Brodie (named after Roy Scheider’s character from Jaws), some surprisingly raw aggression from former heartthrob Joseph Fiennes as the boxing obsessed Lenny Drake, and even a sterling effort from singer Seu Jorge, here portraying the wing’s drug chemist Batista. Rounding off the escaping five man band is Dominic Cooper of The Devil’s Double fame, playing the part of the young, naïve and victimized Lacey who Frank takes under his wing.
Such prison flicks are usually dominated by the bad guys, and The Escapist is hardly an exception on this front. After Cox, the most acting cred has to go to Damian Lewis and Steven Mackintosh, both playing decidedly against type with glorious results. Lewis, who is currently excelling in a morally nebulous role on Showtime’s Homeland, steals every scene as Rizza, psychotic and sexually ambiguous capo, the film’s big bad and the ultimate threat to our heroes’ best efforts. Despite having little to work with on paper, again thanks to the script’s open ended nature and room for creative input, he smolders as he minces, a terrifying rage burning behind hard set eyes. Mackintosh, playing Rizza’s junkie brother Tony, is both amusing and creepy, over the top in a manner which somehow makes him more authentically worrisome.
The exponent behind this uniform excellence has to be Wyatt, however, who makes an extremely assured and confident debut behind the camera (as well as co-penning the screenplay with Daniel Hardy), displaying an eye for great visuals, a connection with his principal stars, and a rare self-discipline when harnessing the material. Though running in at a conservative hour and forty minute, The Escapist manages to leave the viewer wanting more, particularly during the build up scenes, a testament to the brevity of the pacing. We get just enough information, never linger on any particular aspect of the story, and as a result never lose even an iota of interest.
The Escapist’s emotional heart is provided, naturally, by Brian Cox. Whether it be the solemn weight of responsibility he endures with each major decision, his reaction to setbacks, or even just quiet moments when he is able to reflect on what makes his pursuit and escapism worthwhile, he lends a hefty dose of unsentimental, damningly real pathos and feeling. While Wyatt’s superb work sets the stage, Cox’s oft-wasted talent dominates it, channeling younger days and ultimately delivering a potentially career defining performance. Were the part played by a more workmanlike actor, perhaps someone more accustomed to protagonist roles, the film would surely have dropped down several levels.
Even then, the film would still be top class entertainment, and draws in its climax a bold and brilliant gambit on the audience which throws a whole new light on what we’ve seen, and ultimately sends a heartfelt final message to the viewer which, when coupled with the surprisingly uplifting final credits piece by Coldplay, gives the film a startling conclusion somehow more hopeful than the more predictable endgame we had expected. Having toyed with the idea of being an excellently mounted formulaic caper, The Escapist gives a parting gift of unforgettable quality, and ascends mere ‘plot-twist’ status.
Throw in a wonderfully atmospheric location, highly effective soundtrack and some sparkling dialogue, and you have a film which deserves far more than footnote status as a rising filmmaker’s debut. Without Wyatt, The Escapist would probably fail to stick in the memory, and without Cox it definitely wouldn’t. Carrying a freshly original story within a starkly unoriginal genre, backed by a superb cast, it should at the very least provide top class entertainment.
For these reasons and more, the smile should be beaming by the end.