Feb 23, 2011

Review: The Way Back

The joke fell flat in the Siberian gulag.
Director: Peter Weir
Release Date: 24 February 2011
Rating: (M)
Runtime: 133 mins
From the very opening shots of the film and the emotional performance of lead, Jim Sturgess (Janusz), in prison and refusing to sign a confession for antigovernment activities in Poland, the audience gets the sense that this is only the beginning of big, big trouble. Yes, and then no. What could become another bleak film about the horrors that faced people during WWII emerges as something far more brilliant: a Peter Weir film.

During an extremely fraught period in European history, many people deemed to be of the 'wrong' race, political belief system, or nationality, were forced into gulags to work until they died of exhaustion. It's 1940: a small band of men escape from a prison in Siberia. The reason? Freedom, their loved ones, their dreams. Russell Boyd's (Master and Commander) eerie cinematography shows in detail that Siberia in winter is no joke--survival here is a tenuous thing and the odds minute by minute could go either way.

The cast balances each other out perfectly with Janusz (Sturgess), Valka (Colin Farrell, looking scruffier than usual), Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), and Irena (Saoirse Ronan in yet another brilliant role) taking the main stage; their dialogue as an ensemble jumps between the lighter everyday to the very real issues that rule their fate. Farrell's Valka is ever the petty crim, the first one in the group suggesting that cannibalism might be the only means of survival; being Farrell, you can so rarely tell if he's joking, but here, you must imagine he isn't (in his heart of hearts, as an extremely hungry man). 

It's difficult to pick a standout performance here, because the four leads are all so charming, so human. Saoirse Ronan proves once again why she's one of the best up-and-coming actresses of her generation, giving Irena a full heart, a rich backstory, and a mischievous grin. Sturgess is handsome, but not distractingly so, making a firm mark as the group's infallible leader who will never give up.

Almost as real as the actors on screen, the landscapes and terrain in this film are so integral to what happens that they take on animate characteristics: unforgiving and immovable, from the icy mountains and valleys of Siberia to the barren deserts they must cross to eventually reach India and freedom.

Photo courtesy of the official movie site.
There are some wonderful moments throughout that blatantly point out what accomplished filmmaking this is.The first real 'beat' sets up of a chilling motif; one of the escapees who is riddled with night-blindness wanders off into the wild to look for firewood after dark. He experiences a beautiful hallucination; he's made it home and the city lights are burning bright."We made it," he says. When the group discover him, he is sitting mere metres away from their campfire, legs tucked up under his chin, frozen completely solid. 

In times of severe hunger and stress, Janusz also experiences a recurring hallucination - he is walking up to his front door, reaching out for - a rock? No, for something we're not quite sure of until the end of the film, where Weir and cowriter Keith R. Clarke cleverly bookend this motif and add the last, salient detail. The score by Burhhard von Dallwitz, so masterfully delivered and emotionally riveting in all the right places (whose previous credits include mainly television work such as Underbelly), will surely set him up for a lot more feature film work in the future.

The Way Back is an astonishing film. We don't hold with the notion that art can only be produced over a very long period of time. The way the media (and Cameron) played up the fact that Avatar was ten years in the making only served to disappoint us all the more; people fell over themselves to see it because they felt they were supposed to. Peter Weir was quite the opposite; it took so long because he struggled to get studio support for this film. But oh boy, are we glad he did. 

Weir on the set: The Way Back. Photo courtesy of the official movie site.

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