DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: The Way Back

Tuesday 19 April 2011

The Way Back

The Way Back (2010) dir. by Peter Weir
Starring Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell and Saoirse Ronan.


By Blair Stewart

Slawomir Rawicz performed a heroic feat of endurance after the Polish army officer was imprisoned to suffer the likelihood of a wintry death in a Stalin-era gulag. But Rawicz's memoir The Long Walk told the story of him breaking out of the gulag with a ragtag gang of prisoners and their feats of survival as they traversed the unforgiving lands of Siberia, the Gobi desert and even the mighty Himalayas to find a safe haven in British-occupied India. It’s an extraordinary tale of courage and fraternity under the most dire of circumstances, worthy of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's stamina or the Stella Maris College's Old Christians Rugby Team survival while trapped up in the Andes.

Sadly, The Long Walk was mostly bunk.

A Soviet amnesty pardon for foreign soldiers saved Slawomir's hide, not an indomitable will to live, no doubt much to the chagrin of explorers who've retraced Rawicz's steps after being inspired by his negligible exploits. He was also jailed for killing a member of the NKVD (the KGB back in the old days) instead of false charges of spying by the Soviet authorities, as he had stated. I found this out after the film, but with my opinion of The Way Back fairly concrete by the time, I was doubly-disappointed. Oh well, Farley Mowat's a pretty good bullshitter too, and you don't see too many Canadians complaining about Never Cry Wolf, do you?

Peter Weir, as one of Australia's greatest directors, had the rug pulled out from under him on a recent adaptation of Shantaram with Johnny Depp, most likely buying property in development hell for good. This despite Weir's 2003 Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World standing as one of the finest films Hollywood has produced in the past two decades, and a fair reason why I was looking forward to The Way Back. Jim Sturgess stars as a noble Rawicz-ish fellow unjustly imprisoned in Siberia. Our protagonist hatches a plan to escape through the Earth's cruelest terrain with the accompaniment of a wildcat Russian thug (Colin Farrell) of unknown whereabouts, a taciturn American (Ed Harris) of unknown whereabouts, a Polish girl (Saoirse Ronan) of unknown whereabouts and the other escapees consisting of a hodgepodge of unknowns.

Now, the essentials of a great movie are all in play; Weir's directing, Russell Boyd as Weir's cinematographer, a fine, if unspectacular, cast and an epic story from a now-iffy source. And yet the journey becomes a chore.

The obvious challenge of telling the story is taking the viewer from point A to point B while maintaining interest in what happens within the vacuum, and The Way Back can't sustain internal drama during the travels.

The problems build from the title card. After the enjoyably self-indulgent sequence of Hans Landa's verbal jousting in Inglorious Basterds’ opening act, it's hard to view the cross-examination of Sturgess's character by the Russkies in this work and not feel the moment should be filed under 'canned predictable interrogation'. We've watched this scene many times before, so how can it be done better? Perhaps lay a sacrifice at the risky altar of 'artistic license'?

The usual plot boxes are ticked off on the path to the end credits – water and food are found, water and food are lost, a few contract players and a top-liner drop dead, life goes on, roll credits and get the hell out of the theater. I found the predictability of The Way Back crushing. This could have been a subject worthy of a Maurice Jarre sweeping score and iconic roles for all. Colin Farrell does fine work as the wild card murderer, and Ed Harris does his Ed Harris thing, but otherwise it's just English actors doing their best Russian impersonations on the cusp of looking for 'moose and squirrel'.

Now, despite my regard for Master and Commander, there's a flaw to it that still pricks me on subsequent viewings, and it occurs once again in the first half of Weir's latest. It's his disregard for building dramatic action in vital scenes. In the climax of Master and Commander, when the French warship is barrelling towards Russell Crowe's men, Weir eschewed the tension as they quickly leapt into battle, whereas the likes of Leone would have drawn out the drama like putty.

If the audience hasn't walked out on you, why not have some fun with suspense and denial of release? In his latest work, a pivotal moment would be the jailbreak before the death march down to India, where tension can be ratcheted up as the men flee their captors. But what do we get? A few hushed exchanges and then a sharp cut to the men stumbling through a blizzard post-escape. If the source material is faked, surely you could take liberties, no? If the rest of your film is exhaustion, starvation and walking (and walking, walking, walking...), perhaps one should make the most of the opportunity. This struck me as a dry, half-assed approach to the material – a re-hashing of movie tropes to 'just play it safe'. Perhaps the family-friendly influence of benefactors National Geographic Films and Imagenation Abu Dhabi weighed upon the filmed content, as in reality, Saoirse Ronan wouldn't have lasted long in the company of desperate Russian criminals. I'm not too certain of the validity of some of the classic sequences in David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai and Malick's The Thin Red Line (my Dad, after viewing the latter, spoke of the Malick scripted soldier's voiceover as, "Any Marine who started whining and going on about nature like that during the battle of Guadalcanal would have been shot for sedition."), but I can't argue with their cinematic results. You take a risk, you might get an award. You play it safe, and the film passes you by.

I hope this isn't the case with Peter Weir.

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