Saturday, December 25, 2010

Review - The Way Back

Peter Weir is a great director, but The Way Back is not quite a great film. In his first film since 2003's magnificent Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Weir has taken it upon himself to tell a fantastic story, but while The Way Back has the bearing of an epic adventure, it sometimes struggles to bring its narrative to life. Nevertheless, this is a handsome piece of filmmaking, with Weir once again displaying his consummate craftsmanship, and the story it tells is astonishing, whether it's true or not. The film has been adapted in large part from SÅ‚awomir Rawicz's memoir The Long Walk, in which he claimed that he and a group of fellow prisoners escaped a Siberian gulag in 1941 and trekked 4,500 miles to freedom in India, but historical records show that Rawicz wasn't released until 1942. Did he invent the whole story, or did he steal a possibly apocryphal tale and make it his own?

Whatever the facts of the matter, this is an extraordinary yarn and one that merits the big screen treatment. The opening section of the picture skilfully immerses us into life in the gulag and introduces us to the key characters. Jim Sturgess plays Janusz, a Pole convicted by spying after his wife, under torture, testified against him. He is sent to Siberia, where the guards warn the inmates that it's not the fences and the dogs keeping them imprisoned, but the unforgiving wilderness that surrounds them. The gulag is captured by Weir with a sharp eye for details, with the prisoners utilising whatever skills they possess to survive; an artist trades pornographic sketches, a storyteller recounts Treasure Island to fellow prisoners, while some – like thief Valka (Colin Farrell) – simply steal and kill to get what they need.

Although Janusz is the film's lead character, Valka is the most compelling protagonist, with Farrell delivering a lively and very engaging performance as the violent and staunchly loyal Stalinist who is allowed to join the escape party by virtue of possessing the only knife. The escape party Janusz eventually puts together is seven-strong, but my eye kept being drawn back to Farrell as he snarled away on the sidelines, and when the actor isn't on screen, the film really suffers for for his absence. Few of the other escapees really come to life as interesting, multi-dimensional characters, and so it's hard to be fully invested in their fates as they eventually succumb to the hardships of their journey. The film also has a real issue with pacing, which is perhaps understandable when you consider the challenge of compressing a year-long, 4,000 mile odyssey into a feature film. Some sections drag while other appear bafflingly curtailed, such as the group's trek across the Himalayas, which some viewers are in danger of missing completely if they pick that point to go to the toilet.

Having said all of that, The Way Back still holds the attention impressively well and Weir doesn't stint on showing us the pain and misery that these men endured as they slowly moved towards salvation. From sub-zero temperatures in Siberia to mirages in the desert, the film constantly reminds us of their hunger, their desperation, their swelling feet and blistered skin, as the increasingly ragged characters soldier on. When they find a source of food or water or a moment to rest their weary limbs, the sense of relief is palpable, and the arrival of Saoirse Ronan as a Polish refugee halfway through the picture is crucial, adding a fresh dimension to the group dynamic. This remarkably composed and confident young actress adds a sense of vulnerability to their band, and she shares some good scenes with Ed Harris, who is strong and understated as a grizzled American soldier.

It's the film's grand sweep that you'll remember afterwards, though. Russell Boyd, who won an Oscar for his camerawork on Master and Commander, takes advantage of the continent-traversing story to give us an extraordinarily rich variety of vistas, with the characters often being dwarfed by imposing mountain ranges or an endless desert. It's a feast for the eyes, and the rare contemporary film that recalls the work of David Lean, but I just wish it married the human story with the spectacle as successfully as Weir has done in the past. The Way Back is a striking and impressive tale of the human spirit triumphing over seemingly insurmountable odds, but we've come to expect more than this from Weir, and I certainly expected him to be above the kind of coda that gave us a potted history of communism before closing with such a silly, sappy climax.