Escape at Dannemora

A Real Life Shawshank Redemption Miniseries

On the morning of June 6 2015, two prisoners were discovered missing from their cells at the Clinton Correctional Facility. Since its construction over 150 years ago, no one had ever escaped from this New York State maximum security prison. What followed was a 3-week manhunt that would be plastered across the media. Convicted murders David Sweat and Richard Matt tunneled out of their cells, crawled through a heating pipe and made their way out of a manhole to the streets in Dannemora. Once outside, they hid in the wilderness for weeks planning to cross the border into Canada.

escape-at-dannemora-dvdEscape at Dannemora is a dramatic television miniseries that retells how Sweat and Matt, along with the help of prison worker Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell, orchestrated a real life Shawshank Redemption prison break.

The first episode starts with Tilly being brought in wearing a black and white jump suit. Her involvement with Matt and Sweat is fully fleshed out throughout the series. Without her, their escape would not be possible. Six more episodes follow, focusing not only on the escape plot but on character motives as well. It is a far more complex story than just two men breaking through cell walls.

In the beginning of the series, the story humanizes Sweat and Matt. Although they are inmates, you can understand that their lives in prison are brutal. You can relate to their desperate need to get out. Then, after the pair escapes, the story very bluntly reminds you that they are in fact very dangerous people who have committed horrendous acts. They were in prison for a reason.

At the start, Tilly’s character was also somewhat sympathetic, only to show, little by little that in her own way she is as sinister as Sweat and Matt.

The biggest surprise for me was that it was directed by Ben Stiller. Looking at his previous movies, which are mostly over-the-top comedies like Zoolander and Tropic Thunder, I certainly wouldn’t have guessed he could create such an exceptional dramatic production. He has shown to have remarkable ability when it comes to storytelling and character development. The shots Stiller used to visibly demonstrate the escape plan were brilliant. Where was he hiding this talent for all these years?

This series puts Ben Stiller on par with the likes of directors Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective) and Joe Chapelle (The Wire). Escape at Dannemora has proven that Stiller has an incredibly versatile skill set. I can only hope he takes on more dramatic projects in the future.

— Lesley L.

The Five

the fiveFrom August 1888 to November 1888, five women were murdered in the Whitechapel area of London by a person (or persons?) known only as Jack the Ripper. There have been countless articles, books and movies of the infamous crimes, with most focusing on the violence and mystery surrounding Jack’s identity.

The Five takes a different view with author Hallie Rubenhold focusing on the five female victims who, for more than 100 years, were labelled as prostitutes. Through tremendously detailed research piecing together the lives of the five – Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane, Rubenhold shows readers how and why these depictions of the victims are gravely false.

The book has five chapters, one for each victim, but doesn’t focus on their brutal and well-publicized deaths. Instead, it focuses on their humble beginnings up until they were murdered because these women were so much more than grisly deaths and the misconstrued labels society gave them.

What struck me the most about The Five was the author’s vivid and unflinching look at the lives of the lower class in the 19th century – lives that were often brutal, uncertain and set within horrific living conditions. Rubenhold also focuses on the limitations imposed upon women of the time, especially those of the lower classes.

With no rights and few options available, most women were at the mercy of the men in their lives and could look forward to working to support their family at a young age, getting married, have numerous children (of whom they’d lose a significant number to disease and malnutrition) and an early death. In general life was hard in the late 19th century but was certainly significantly harder for women.

With this unique focus, Rubenhold shines a light not on the vicious crimes of a notorious mad man, but on the five female victims. And while at times the book was a little info-heavy, I applaud Rubenhold for humanizing the victims of these infamous murders that have captivated the world for over a century, as well as shining a light on the hardships of women in the late 19th century.

— Laurie P.