Ben Stiller’s Escape at Dannemora is a binge-worthy start to your new year of TV, says Dan Slevin.
On June 6, 2015 two lifers from the “Honor Block” of the 170-year-old Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora in upstate New York, successfully completed the tunnelling exercise they had been working on for months and escaped. Richard Matt and David Sweat were bad dudes – both convicted of murder – but Matt was an especially bad egg. They were expecting to be picked up in a getaway car driven by a prison employee, Joyce Mitchell who had worked with both while she supervised the prison tailoring workshop, but she had a case of cold feet and didn’t show up.
The pair headed into the woods and evaded capture for over three weeks before the authorities caught up with them and Matt was killed and Sweat recaptured. The resemblance of the escape to the film The Shawshank Redemption created an air of romance about the escape, despite the sordid and violent details.
Now, there is an eight-part mini-series – Escape at Dannemora – and it’s one of the best bits of television you’ll see this year. It’s notable for a few reasons – Patricia Arquette won a Golden Globe late last year for moving and vanity-free portrayal of Mitchell; in his portrayal of Sweat, Paul Dano turned from being an actor I was consistently irritated by to an actor I now find pretty watchable – but I think the most interesting thing going on here is the emergence of comic actor Ben Stiller as a director with real cinematic grunt.
Previously, his directorial credits have been comic vehicles for himself (like Zoolander) but Dannemora is an opportunity for Arquette, Dano and the great Benicio Del Toro (Matt) to shine. And stretch out – eight episodes lets things breathe pretty well.
Patience is required for the first few episodes and rewarded with the remainder. Special notice has to go to cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné, a bad-ass French Canadian whose name you should be seeing much more often from now on. “When I meet a director, I like to tell them my vision,” she told the Golden Globes website. “If our visions overlap, I’ll take the job.”
Escape at Dannemora looks good with the curtains closed and the lights out – like any good piece of cinema should –and the marvellous real-life locations inside and outside the real Clinton prison help a lot.
In a weird, small-world, coincidence, this series is not the first fictionalised version of the escape to make it to the screen. In 2017, Stephen Tolkin wrote and directed New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell for the Lifetime Network. Stephen Tolkin is the brother of Michael Tolkin who co-wrote most of Escape at Dannemora. Christmas dinner must have been interesting in the Tolkin household this year.
Escape at Dannemora is now binge-able on the Sky On Demand service (for SoHo subscribers) and on Sky’s digital streaming service, Neon.