Escape at Dannemora review – a big, cinematic series with a cast to match

Ben Stiller directed it. Patricia Arquette, Benicio del Toro and Paul Dano are stunning in it. It’s just a shame they made a show about a staggering prison break such a slow-burn

It’s been difficult to escape from Escape at Dannemora (Sky Atlantic), the tale of an astounding real-life prison break that marks Ben Stiller’s TV-directing debut. Patricia Arquette has won every award going for her portrayal of Joyce ‘Tilly’ Mitchell, the civilian who ran the prison sewing factory, and whose involvement with the men under her charge went beyond mere supervision. Some of those portrayed in the series have publicly denounced Stiller’s vision of events, though, it should be said, they have been unable to actually see it, given their current situations.

In 2015, two inmates broke out of a maximum security prison in upstate New York. Richard Matt and David Sweat, both murderers serving life sentences, pulled off the unthinkable and managed to cut through pipes and walls in order to escape. It was such an audacious feat that its dramatisation was inevitable, and this is an elegant, if meandering, take on the affair. The whole thing is now on Sky Atlantic – seven episodes of it – but it is one of those rare contemporary dramas that is ill-suited to binge-watching, and might be better to take at a more leisurely pace. It is slow to the point of inertia; two episodes in, they are only just starting to think about the plan. Prison is boring and repetitive, and it makes that point well, but even so I imagine its slow burn would work more effectively weekly than gobbling it all up at once.

It is almost obligatory to point out that in big, cinematic series like this, the big, cinematic cast are excellent, and that’s certainly the case here. Of course Arquette is being lauded for her work. There’s nothing Hollywood likes more than a beautiful woman frumping herself up for a part, and Arquette put on weight, used prosthetics to affect an underbite, and wore big, brown contact lenses that make her look either haunting or haunted, depending on the scene. With the focus on the physical transformation, as complete as it is, it can be easy to miss the brilliance of the performance, and as Mitchell she really is remarkable: spiky, selfish and manipulative, and trapped, sympathetic and manipulated, often in the same moment.

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