Being a big fan of Brian Cox I was drawn to the film, and when I saw the names of some other actors such as Damian Lewis, Joseph Fiennes and Liam Cunningham, I was desperate to see it, but I've only just managed to catch it on DVD.
Now that's out of the way, here's the plot of The Escapist. It's a simple premise, but a very effective one. Frank Perry is an institutionalised criminal, with a sentence that will mean he's going to spend the rest of his life in prison. The only thing that keeps him going is his reading and the thoughts of his daughter.
One day he receives a letter telling him that his daughter is extremely ill. Fearing that he may never see her again he decides to escape in the hopes of seeing her one last time, but he can't escape alone, and he devises a plan that requires the help of a number of fellow inmates. Each of them brings a unique talent to the escape, except for one, Frank's fellow cell mate.
Lacey has just been moved in and caught the eye of the brother of the inmate who runs the prison. He's already experienced his brutality once, and rather than face the nightmare of prison life Frank decides to take him along and try to save him before he becomes institutionalised himself.
The Escapist opens well, setting the tone for the entire film with Brian Cox playing Frank Perry, the lead of the film, a part that was written specifically for the actor, appearing in the darkness of his cell as the western style music plays out.
With the music still playing and the sound of a clock ticking by in the background, he leaves his cell with a dramatic purpose and enters the cell of the character played Damian Lewis, a character we soon discover is actually the inmate in charge of the prison.
I really liked these opening scenes, they set-up a great mystery for the audience, feeling unsure of what was really happening or of the characters, and already our curiosity was piqued.
From there the film turns to a split time line, one following the beginnings of Frank's plan and the other during the escape itself.
This is really effective in telling the two stories, but also in building the suspense and tension, especially when it starts to bring these two stories together nearer and nearer to the end. It's when the stories begin to merge that we understand some of the subtleties of the opening storyline and the third story is revealed.
The story builds well and delivers some interesting twists and turns, however the surprises don't quite deliver the impact that you would have hoped for. They are quite easy to spot and guess as the story progresses, however it's the story and the narrative style that keeps you going, and despite the fact that you might have guessed it already, there's still a lot of enjoyment to be had watching the story evolve and come together.
In fact the film does deserve a second viewing, possibly under the audio commentary, just to see some of the elements of the story come together and the characters bring us to that point.
The closing sequences are very well conceived, although they do suffer a little if you've already understood the story by this point. Still, I have to say that there's a lot of enjoyment that comes out of the stories merging together and then returning to real time.
I have to mention a couple of scenes but it's hard not to give too much away, safe to say that the moment that Cox's character receives a visitor is a great lesson in storytelling through film, and it gives great credit to the audience.
Performance wise, Brian Cox is Brian Cox. There's just no saying anything bad about this actor because he's just so naturally engaging on screen and always delivers a great performance, and The Escapist is no different. From the opening scene where Cox is full frame with darkness behind him, he commands the screen when he's on it.
However there's a strong cast behind him too, and Damian Lewis, Joseph Fiennes, Liam Cunningham and Steven Mackintosh all deserve mentions for strong performances, with Lewis and Mackintosh having smaller roles but very strong roles at that.
The film doesn't delve too deeply into the characters which is a shame since the characters are much richer than a lot of films we see these days, yet it's also very good since they wouldn't really open up so easily in prison and they reveal themselves during the film through their own words and actions and others.
Good picture holds up well in dark and low lit scenes, especially considering this was the standard DVD I was watching upscaled to 1080p, but it isn't anything special. Slightly washed out and grainy, although that could have been a stylistic choice.
Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS
The audio track does use all the speakers, which is surprising as you might not initially think that there would be considering the focus on character and dialogue. However there are plenty of effects and music that utilise all the speakers and the strength of the audio. There's a good use of the rear speakers and movement of sound too.
Audio Commentary, Making Of featurette, Behind the Scenes, Storyboard Comparison
Rupert Wyatt, co-writer and director, and actor Dominic Cooper cover the audio commentary for the film, which I found rather strange considering Cooper's smaller part in the film. Ideally I would have liked to have heard Brian Cox in the commentary, especially since the part, and the film, was written specifically for him. Then there's the strong cast behind him, none of whom we get to hear from. Still Wyatt delivers a good commentary and tells us a lot about the film and the stars. Wyatt has some interesting anecdotes about the film and delivers then in an engaging way.
Making Of featurette
This is an interesting short that gives us plenty from the cast talking about the film and their parts in it. We also get to hear from the Director, Writer, Producers and Director of Photography about many aspects of the film production. There's some good information to be had from the featurette.
Behind the Scenes
More of the same as the previous featurette, although here there's a little more behind the scenes footage and it feels a little less structured. This could have been bundled with the Making Of and make a much larger featurette.
Here we see a couple of scenes replayed with their storyboard equivalent set above the scene, This is really quite interesting to those who like behind the scenes of film production, but it would have been nice to have seen some more scenes, particularly some of the key story sequences and how they were originally conceived.
While some have been quick to dismiss this film because it doesn't deliver the strength of surprise that they would expect from other such films, I think they are focussing on one element rather than the whole. Of course I agree the film would be better if it had delivered a much bigger surprise, but what I enjoyed more about it was the journey and the unravelling.
Watching the two different time lines converge and the resulting unravelling is where the best part of this film lies, seeing the subtle connections and the way the story flips from escape to planning provides some strong examples of clever writing and film-making.
With Brian Cox providing a typically strong performance and being backed by an intimidating Damian Lewis and Steven Mackintosh, and two smaller appearances by Joseph Fiennes and Liam Cunningham, The Escapist has a lot to offer, just perhaps not as much as it could have.
On DVD the audio commentary lacks these big names, and the rest of the extras are a little light. Still I'd say it's worth putting on your rental list.