Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Way Back

It’s been a long time between drinks for one of Australia’s most prized directors, Peter Weir, and now we can see why. Returning from the treacherous seas of 2003’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Weir has gone to the opposite extreme, well and truly losing his sea legs in favour of a harrowing 10,000 kilometre trek from Siberia to India. Beginning with Slavomir Rawicz’s 1956 ‘memoir’ The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom (the quotation marks necessary after a BBC documentary discredited Rawicz’s account as a fabrication, or at least borrowed from the experiences of other soldiers), Weir and his team undertook their own meticulous research to find the evidence of at least four Polish soldiers escaped from a Siberian Gulag and walked the staggering distance across the steppes of Mongolia, China’s Gobi Desert and across the Himalayas to the safety of British India. It’s a feat that truly boggles the mind, but one brought compassionately and incisively to the screen by Weir and his ensemble cast including Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell and Saoirse Ronan.

Sturgess provides the heart of the story as Janusz, a Polish officer condemned to the gulag during the Reign of Terror after his wife is tortured into giving evidence against him. There he meets taciturn American engineer Mr. Smith (Harris), and find himself hatching an escape plan with an eccentric Russian actor Khabarov (Mark Strong). But it is Smith and Janusz who eventually escape, joined by four fellow Poles and one terrifying tattooed thug Valka (Farrell). Each has his own reasons for risking almost certain death to attempt this superhuman feat, though it isn’t until they come upon Irena (Ronan), a young stray, that the men start to bare their souls.

The Way Back succeeds as both an impossibly detailed chronicle and a stunning tribute to the audacity of hope and the tenacity of the human spirit. The actors are all utterly committed, while the location scouts and cinematographer certainly earned their keep, with the beauty of the various vistas matched only by their implicit dangers. And yet in distilling the human condition down to the essence of escape and survival, Weir’s screenplay has a little too much fat to it. Would he have made The Way Back an even leaner, sparser film and trusted his actors’ impressively physical performances to tell the story rather than fall back on the many overwritten, exposition heavy, scenes. This is however a relatively minor quibble in the magnificent scope of the entire production. The Way Back is a beautifully hewn, honest and courageous film. It’s Man Vs. Wild, for real.

Published on Concrete Playground
Australian release date: 24 February 2011

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