The revengers tragedy - Preview of 'The escapist'

One thing The Escapist is not, Gillies Mackinnon insists, is a prison picture - certainly not in the sense that The Big House or Birdman of Alcatraz were prison pictures. Mackinnon’s latest film tells the story of Denis (Jonny Lee Miller), a man whose life is shattered by a single criminal act in which his young wife is killed in a bungled break-in attempt by a career criminal called Ricky Barnes (Andy Serkis). Denis, for whom life up to then had seemed perfect, cannot cope with his loss, and dedicates his life to tracking down the man responsible. It is a pursuit which requires him not only to be sent to jail, but to be sent to the worst - or, as the prison service would have it, the most secure - jail in Britain: Sullen Voe.

The screenplay (by Nick Perry) is precisely the kind of project that was likely to appeal to the Scottish-born Mackinnon, whose taste has never been for standard-issue stories. Regeneration, based on Pat Barker’s prize-winning novel and featured in Preview 28 four years ago this month, was about the treatment of soldiers suffering from shellshock during the First World War. Hideous Kinky (also featured in Preview some 18 months later in issue 36,) starred Kate Winslet as a young woman who takes her children to Morocco in the late sixties, discovering in the process those areas where freedom and responsibility, rebellion and tradition collide.

More recently, Mackinnon directed acclaimed TV drama The Last of the Blonde Bombshells, about a group of women musicians who reunite long after their wartime fame. If there is one thing that links the films, it is that they are about characters who have to examine their motives in ways which they may not have anticipated. They are films about people, but people caught up in difficult, if not impossible, decisions.

The Escapist, too, involves a character pushed to - and at times beyond - the brink: a man who embarks on a course of perilous action rather than try to deal with the crisis that has destroyed his life. But Denis’ apparently simple motivation - that of revenge - becomes less and less simple as it takes over his life.

“He’s not really brave, because he’s not dealing with the things he should be dealing with,” says Miller. “He has a very twisted outlook on how he should make things better. All he can see is the injustice, and he doesn’t look at things he should really be doing in his life.”

“It’s a story of nemesis,” explains Mackinnon. “Denis fakes his own suicide and goes into the prison system, obsessively seeking this man who killed his wife. He becomes an ‘escapist’ in order to become a ‘Category A’ prisoner and end up in Sullen Voe, this maximum security unit where he knows Ricky Barnes is. In a way, it’s a David and Goliath story, because he’s going into the lair of the snake. Sullen Voe is Ricky Barnes’ territory, where he can’t be touched, and Denis is going in there to kill him. It’s heroic, in the sense that he’s going to meet his greatest fear.

“I can’t really think of another film that this relates to particularly,” continues the director. “I don’t think that prison is what the story is about in the end. Denis is escaping life: he can’t face up to it, because he’s obsessed with this grief and this obsession with revenge. It’s like he’s escaping from the responsibility to which he ultimately has to return. It feels to me more of a mythological story, where he tracks down this man who has ruined his life. He can’t put his own life at peace and he can’t put it back together again until he has done that.”

The Escapist is very much an English story but, like Mackinnon’s earlier film, Trojan Eddie, it was filmed in Ireland. “It should have been shot in England, because it’s an English story,” he says. “But we’re in Ireland because they are wise enough to have tax concessions. British Government wake up!”

For the film, Mackinnon has assembled a top cast and crew, including (in addition to Miller and Serkis) Jodhi May, who won Best Actress at Cannes for A World Apart. In The Escapist, she plays Christine, Denis’ sister-in-law, who ends up looking after the baby her sister was carrying when she was murdered.

“She tries to make a life for herself because, in her mind, Denis is dead,” explains Mackinnon. “He died in a plane crash, committing suicide. But he’s not dead and, when he escapes from prison, he’s drawn back to the house where it all occurred in the first place. He believes the house has been sold, but Christine is actually living there: she has split up from her husband and is living in the house with the child.

“So, in the middle of the movie, Denis is confronted once again with life. These two characters are kind of twins in grief. One of them expresses it in a responsible way by looking after the child and making a life, and the other one completely buries everything human and becomes obsessed with taking revenge on the man who took the life of his wife. I think there are emotional levels in the story that might be kind of surprising.”

Crucial to the whole enterprise was the casting of Denis, who has to remain interesting and even sympathetic while cutting himself off obsessively from the world. “I worked with Jonny on Regeneration,” says Mackinnon, “and he’s an actor I’ve got a strong feeling about. We worked really well together and we wanted to make another film.” For his part, Miller describes Mackinnon as something of a paradox: “Very easy-going and, at the same time, passionate.”

Equally important, says Mackinnon, was the casting of Ricky Barnes. “It was quite difficult,” he says, “because we had to find somebody who would really give a quality to the role and wouldn’t be a stereotypical bad guy. I met Andy and I just had this strong instinct about him as being somebody who could transform what would otherwise be a rather obvious character. And I’m delighted in the way that he has been able to walk into his shoes and give Jonny that mirror image, that dark mirror image, of the man that he has to destroy.”

The Escapist is produced by Jolyon Symonds (whose last credit was the totally different Kevin & Perry Go Large) for Sky Pictures, the feature-film arm of the UK satellite broadcaster, which has been responsible for such offbeat movies as Saving Grace - a major hit in the US and Germany - and Don Boyd’s My Kingdom.

For Mackinnon, The Escapist is ultimately a thriller with a strong emotional edge. “I think in a way it is a love story between a man and his wife who has been murdered and the love story continues,” he concludes. “He can’t betray her, and he has got to find the man who killed her and kill that man. In that sense, it has a biblical feeling to me. And that, I hope, takes it above the more mundane revenge thriller.”

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