Sky Atlantic’s first import of the new year is Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora. The seven-part drama, directed by Ben Stiller, tells the true story of what happened when two inmates successfully tunnelled out of the prison in upstate New York in 2015.
The inmates, Richard Matt and David Sweat are portrayed by the properly menacing Benicio Del Toro and Paul Dano. They are both convicted murderers serving their sentences on the Honor Block. Richard or Ricky has a passion for art and spends his time painting for the guards. David works in the shop sewing. It’s here we’re introduced to Joyce ‘Tilly’ Mitchell ( Patricia Arquette) she works at Dannemora with her husband Lyle (Eric Lange) and abuses her position to get the prisoners in her shop to perform sexual favours for her in the backroom. David Sweat is one of Tilly’s favourites and she often calls him into her office. The other prisoners are well aware of what is going on but chose to look the other way. While this is the story of the two prisoners who will eventually break free and go on the run, it’s Arquette’s quietly chilling performance as Tilly that is the real draw here.
Tilly is such an interesting character. Knowing she’s real and not a creation from writers Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin makes her even more compelling. She has a timid quality about her. Her voice is quiet and squeaky and even when she gets angry her attempts at shouting wouldn’t wake a sleeping baby. She’s clearly unfulfilled with life at home with happy-go-lucky Lyle, but underneath her mousy exterior, Tilly is a manipulative woman who sees what she wants and gets it. She will become crucial when both men decide to escape.
The series looks stunning with Director Ben Stiller choosing to shoot in Dannemora itself with some of the scenes actually taking place in the cramped confines of the Clinton Correctional Facility, where the real-life escape took place.
The first episode (all seven are now available on NowTV and Sky Boxsets) sets up the key players of the escape with timid Tilly being interviewed by New York State Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott (Bonnie Hunt). The action that goes back in time to show Tilly working in the prison and introduces her relationship with David Sweat and eventually Richard Matt. In a December 2018 interview, the real Tilly criticized some events portrayed in the miniseries. She claimed, “I never had sex with them”, referring to Richard Matt and David Sweat. She also criticized director Ben Stiller, calling him “a son-of-a-bitch liar just like the rest of the world.
While some US critics have questioned whether the story really needed the seven-episodes Showtime gave it, but it’s a show that uses its time wisely. The sixth episode flashes back to show us the crimes that sent Sweat and Matt to prison, while the feature-length finale which focuses on the aftermath of the escape is genuinely exciting and fast moving. TV has had a fascination with turning these true crimes into dramas of late and this is up there with the best. I shan’t spoil how the madcap story ends but suffice to say don’t expect a happy ending here.
Escape at Dannemora airs Tuesdays at 9.00pm on Sky Atlantic with all episodes available now on Sky Boxsets and NOWTV.