The institution at the center of this film is a decaying old-school prison with heavy keys and paint flaking off the bars, and seemingly run by the ginger mafia. There’s no bullet-proof glass or high-tech surveillance here, just the same elements and familiar archetypes that made The Shawshank Redemption and even The Great Escape, well, great.
Part-funded by the Irish lottery board, this production is far from a blockbuster – and the classy cast revels in a chance to play characters rather than market-tested cutouts. Brian Cox is especially good as the heart of the film in playing a grim and long-dormant lifer who is only stung into action by family tragedy. Joseph Fiennes, Liam Cunningham, Seu Jorge round out the other plotters while Dominic Cooper is perfect as fresh meat for the prison grinder.
Debut director Rupert Wyatt uses a cut-up style that blends the prisoners’ plotting with the escape itself. The resulting kinetic mash-up keeps the story crackling along and reveals just enough to heighten tension but also to keep surprises coming. And there’s no bigger surprise than the satisfying ending that owes more to metaphysics than wooden horses.