Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The Way Back

2010. Dir: Peter Weir. Starring: Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, Saoirse Ronan and Mark Strong. ●●●●○

Peter Weir makes a very odd choice in the early stages of his latest cinematic outng. During the opening credit sequence The Way Back is dedicated to the three Gulag escapees who survived the ordeal depicted in the movie and made it to India. Admittedly when you have a story that is, however loosely, based on factual events the concept of spoilers shouldn't really exist however Weir is gambling on the film succeeding in spite of the release of tension that is a result of this announcement. It's a bold move that tells the viewer that this movie is not about the result but about the attempt, it is less important to focus on who survives but on why the protagonists are making this journey.

The plot is very simple, Jim Sturgess' Janusz has been falsely imprisoned by the Soviet Government under Stalin following his wife's testimony against him - it is inferred that she must have been tortured in order to name him however no evidence of this is seen - after a brief section in the Gulag it becomes clear that most prisoners will either not survive or will lose their sanity so he organises a break with American Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), career criminal Valka (Colin Farrell) and four others. During the journey they als pick up a lone teenage girl played by Saoirse Ronan who helps the group of men to open up to each other in a way they couldn't do as fellow prisoners.

Very early on we are introduced to the hopelessness of the situation when the Prison warden explains the fences are not in themselves the wals but also are the thousand of miles of inhospitable terrain between them and civilisation. The message is clear, break out and you will not survive. Yet our ragtag group of mechanics, priests and accountants do, led by Janusz who's only one generation away from farmers.

The story telling is episodic, we follow the group from one terrain to another, icy forests, rocky escarpments, scorching deserts, with each small section ending either with the death or leaving behind of a character or a lesson learnt. All aspects of survival technique are stripped fom the telling so much so that we don't even see the method of escaping. This methodology doesn't let the movie flow as well as it should do, but it does help build the portrait of the men and reinforces the importance of why over how.

Whilst we may start the movie with the knowledge that many characters will not see the final credits that does not dim the emotions, with the first death there are fantastical images that they see, with another there's a feeling of escape. Janusz even underlines the fact that at least they die free men.

Sturgess is a subdued leading man, Janusz is almost embarassed by his status borne purely out of luck, and perhaps lacks the presence other actors may have brought to the role. The entire supprting cast are superb, Ed Harris has the biggest arc to his story - presenting a distorted mirror image to Janusz - and carries it off extremely well and Farrell is electric whenever he's on screen you can't look away. Gustaf Skarsgaard also stuck out for me as an ex-priest, his wary eyes and resigned attitude perfectly encapsulate a man who knows he has gone so far and understand what the next chapter in his life will bring.

The cinematography is as beautiful and as dramatic as you would expect from a film funded by National Geographic, and I very much doubt there's a shot in the movie that couldn't be used on the cover of the magazine.

There is an odd coda at the end which I feel doesn't work, although I can understand why it's tere dramatically and to tie up some comments and imagery from earlier in the film.

Peter Weir is a unique director in that he isn't an auteur, preferring to let the story be forefront, but at the same time you can see the mark of quality and painstaking accuracy in his movies, there's also an acceptance that the movie may be slow and that that's OK. This isn't Weir at his peak but it is still a superb movie and one that I would heartily recommend.

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