Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Way Back

2010, 133 min., PG-13
IMDB says... Siberian gulag escapees walk 4000 miles overland to freedom in India.

The 73rd Virgin says.... In the pointless game of "greatest living director" Peter Weir would be my most frequent choice with the occasional inclusion of the Coens and Scorsese. Imagine my surprise at stumbling across this 2010 movie that seemed to have little publicity or fanfare but had Weir's name on it - his first since 2003's Master and Commander.

Based on a much disputed account called "The Long Walk" by Slawomir Rawicz, later termed more or less a novel, this tells an unbelievable tale of 6 escapees from the Soviet Siberian Gulag who manage to cross all of the driest, coldest, highest, most desolate, and most dangerous places in the world in order to limp out into northern India sometime in the 1940s. As noted, the book itself is greatly disputed and the movie is labeled as "inspired by real events", and the typical disclaimer about "any similarity to actual persons is coincidental" is all in place at the end. Weir has acknowledged that the movie is primarily a work of fiction. To that extent it mirrors his first masterpiece, "Picnic at Hanging Rock", but unfortunately it lacks all but a little of the power or mystery of that movie.

Weir manages to attract the big names of Colin Farrell, not as the hero, but as a committed and brutal Russian thug who still worships Stalin even as he escapes the Gulag, and Weir veteran Ed Harris as an American engineer who idealistically moved to the Soviet Union only to have his son killed and himself arrested as a spy. There is also an utterly silly introduction of a teenaged girl who claims to have escaped from a work farm and who throws in with the group. James Sturgess is "Janusz", the Polish political prisoner who happily has been an outdoorsman his entire life. The movie is supposed to revolve around him, but most of his fellow travelers are more interesting.

There is something strangely travelogue-ish and unemotional about the whole experience. Characters die, but in the proper order as to leave no doubt about who will survive, and, although we experience the grand scenery (some of Lake Baikal looks CGI'd), there is a loss of perspective about just what distances and unmatched remoteness are involved here.

It ends with a pair of marching boots inserted over footage of Soviet atrocities against all of civilization from the 40s through the 80s. I'm grateful for any movie that shows the monsters as what they were, but it still feels like a quick wrap up tacked on to satisfy the demands of time and relevance - or maybe to satisfy one of the dizzying number of money sources behind the production shown below, courtesy of IMDB.

•Exclusive Films
•National Geographic Films
•Imagenation Abu Dhabi FZ
•Monolith Films
•On the Road
•Point Blank Productions
•Polish Film Institute

Maybe this reviewing stuff is harder than I thought. Finding myself unable to adequately describe the problem with this movie, I will borrow from The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw. "There is nothing that interesting to discover about Janusz, and nothing that interesting for him to discover about himself; even the secrets disclosed about the other escapers don't have much of an impact on the group dynamic. Well, this isn't an overwhelming problem. Weir has put together a good film – oddly, though, considering its scale, it feels like a rather small one."

Well, if this is Weir's last hurrah, it's good enough. But I hope he's got a few more in him.

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