Wednesday, 29 December 2010

'The Way Back' review:

'The Way Back', director Peter Weir's first feature since 2003's naval epic 'Master and Commander', is inspired by disputed memoir The Long Walk which recounts the dangerous journey of a Polish man who escaped from a Siberian gulag in 1940 and walked all the way to India, across the Gobi Desert and over the Himalayas. Weir dedicates the film to three unknown men who are supposed to have survived the ordeal, but says that his film - which he co-wrote - is fictionalised. In Weir's version Jim Sturgess stars as Janusz a young Polish inmate imprisoned by the Soviets after being labelled an anti-communist agent thanks to the testimony of his tortured wife. Once in the bleak and perilously cold surroundings of Northern Siberia he is pressed into harsh manual labour alongside undesirables from all over Eastern Europe as well as an enigmatic American known only as "Mr. Smith" (played by Ed Harris).

Realising that he and his fellow inmates won't survive long working in such conditions, Janusz decides to escape during a blizzard, taking with him a number of his friends along with Smith and one of the prison's most violent criminals Valka (Colin Farrell). Not long into the journey the men encounter Irena, a Polish orphan girl who is herself on the run and who is played by the rising star of 'Atonement' and 'The Lovely Bones' Saoirse Ronan. Amidst the walking we hear the sad tales of how each of these people came to end up in this situation. After the films pre-credits dedication to three survivors, you are immediately aware that many of the party will die in the course of the 4,000 mile walk, most likely as victims of the extremes of temperature and lack of provisions. The central question is "who will make it?"

Weir's ponderous, boring trudge of a film has the misfortune of coming out whilst two far superior works with similar subject matter linger in my recent memory. In Venice I saw Wang Bing's 'The Ditch' which depicted the bleak existence of ideological prisoners held in a work camp in Maoist China. Like much of 'The Way Back', 'The Ditch' is also set in the Gobi Desert but it feels far more real in its depiction of human beings rather than broad national caricatures (there is little to separate Farrell's Russian accent and broken English from that of a certain car insurance hawking meerkat) and with the reality of starvation and the desolation of the landscape much more visceral.

'The Way Back' is by contrast a sanitised account in which starving, thirsty people who have walked for several weeks in horrible cold and extreme heat show very little physical evidence of their ordeal beside chapped lips and dirty clothes. When people drop dead it is only foreshadowed by their character suddenly wearing a pained expression and talking in a softer voice. Furthermore, 'The Ditch' - though uneventful and slow moving - creates a much more coherent sense of the passing of time than Weir's film where we only learn how much time has passed from scene to scene when we are told ("it's been two weeks"). This has the effect of making what should be an epic journey feel at times like it has taken no time at all (paradoxically over an interminable two hour-plus running length).

The other film with which it compares unfavourably is Andrzej Wajda's 2007 film about the Katyn massacre, 'Katyn'. That harrowing Polish drama showed the brutal reality of what lay in store for young Polish servicemen captured by the Soviets during the Second World War. Again, it is a less clean, more emotional picture than anything painted in 'The Way Back'. French film critic Michel Ciment once asked Stanley Kubrick why he didn't consider 'Schindler's List' a great film about the Nazi holocaust, and the director is supposed to have replied that the holocaust was about ten million people being killed whilst Spielberg's film was about a small number of people being saved. That sums up 'The Way Back'.

It is the gulag/Soviet purges equivalent of 'Schindler's List' in that it is ultimately an uplifting human story of survival and not a questioning or difficult film about the complicated, sometimes frightening, reality of the human condition. Again here, the bad things we are all capable of are dismissed as the work of cruel, even evil, individuals - the human experience told with all the moral complexity of a Saturday morning cartoon. Of course, both 'Schindler's List' and 'The Way Back' are based on "true" events, but it is telling which true events filmmakers are drawn to tell stories about and how they choose to tell them.

'The Way Back' is blandly made and generic fare, with cliché-ridden dialogue and insincere performances worthy of an ITV melodrama. People say all the things you'd expect them to say in such a story and little else, spouting hackneyed phrases like "go on without me" and "what are you going to do when you're free?" There are slow-zooming shots on weeping actors as the film strains for poignancy amidst the hammy accents and romanticised vistas. Mark Strong turns up on Janusz's first day at the camp and gives him the obligatory guided tour. Peel back the pretense of real dialogue and what he tells Janusz boils down to him informing us: "don't trust Colin Farell" and "Ed Harris is a wilfully enigmatic American". The reality of life at the camp is peculiar too, as Janusz and Smith are assigned to work in "the mines" where they do very little but sit around chatting, without the guards seeming at all put out.

'The Way Back', with its simplistic grasp of history, politics and the human condition, is just another uplifting story about the overused buzzwords of "hope" and "freedom" that again fill in for anything genuinely profound or inspirational in the telling of the story or in the filmmaking itself.

'The Way Back' is out in cinemas across the UK now and is rated '12A' by the BBFC.

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