Prison Pairs #2: The Escapist and Bronson
THE ESCAPIST (2008)
This one got a bagful awards, and it may have deserved them. The Escapist earns its place in our little list by providing an original and unpredictable (and, if truth be told, difficult to follow) twist to the usually routine escape-plan pic. The film centres on lifer Frank (Brian Cox, as ever a pleasure to watch, even - or perhaps especially - in this hopelessly grizzled form), an exhausted old lag (seasoned con) utterly resigned to spending a life behind bars, until one day he receives a letter informing him that his estranged daughter is a junkie and that her continued existence is hanging by a thread. This sickening news sparks Frank back to life. He needs to get out and see her. The clock is ticking. He gets busy and puts together a breakout crew, and there are plenty of twists and turns (to say the least) as the plan is devised and the escape bid barrels towards a gripping finale.
The Escapist is cracking entertainment; it concentrates on the story rather than any attempt to offer a hyper-realistic depiction of contemporary prison life, as other recent films have done. The narrative is complex, Cox is terrific, Rupert Wyatt’s direction is crisp and engaging (if a little jump-cutty and non-chronological for some tastes). And, for those who like that kind of thing, the film also features Damian Lewis as inmate ‘Number 1’, Dick Van Dyke-style cockney accent and all.
Even less realistic, and much more fantastical, is Bronson, Tom Hardy’s gripping, surreal and grimly hilarious (at least we think so) one-man-show type homage to the ultra-violent ‘Charles Bronson’ (born Michael Peterson), known in the popular media as ‘Britain’s most notorious prisoner’ and who has, at the time of writing, done over 30 years inside. This is not so much a ‘prison film’ as a dreamlike and episodic attempt to try and show something of what might actually go on in Bronson’s head, while also saying something about the Bronson myth itself, as created by Peterson himself and hungrily eaten up by the tabloid media for decades. As one critic put it, this is a film that takes Bronson’s ‘publicity-courting profile as a base to conjure a lurid opera on the phenomenon of “Bronson” ’.
PS. If you want to get a deeper sense of what really might make Bronson/Peterson tick his books are worth a look, especially Prison Diaries: From the Concrete Coffin: