Monday, January 24, 2011

Movie review: The Way Back

The Way Back is Peter Weir's latest film, "inspired by real events" (whatever that may mean).  I went to see this flick on a snap decision.  A television reviewer gave it high marks and, since I'm fascinated  by World War II history I jumped all over it.   

The Way Back is the story of a group of non-persons in Soviet Russia during WWII who escape from a Siberian gulag and walk 4000 miles across hostile territory to India.  The film stars Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, Saiorse Ronan, and Colin Farrell.  Although Sturgess is denied top-billing in favor of Harris, Sturgess in fact plays the lead role of Janusz, a Polish political prisoner sentenced to 20 years of hard labor in one of Stalin's ghastly labor camps.  Janusz conspires with an American caught up in the Stalinist purges, Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) and with other prisoners to escape into the Siberian wilderness and begin a hopeless trek southward to freedom.

I'm afraid I found little to like about the film. 

Ed Harris delivers, as we certainly expect from a seasoned actor of his stature.  I was particularly stricken by one scene in which Janusz and Mr. Smith argue about the direction they should take somewhere in the desert wastelands of Central Asia.  Janusz insists that they stay on course, due south, while Mr. Smith urges that they diverge from their path, to the east, to find water.  "You'll kill us all!" Janusz proclaims.  Mr. Smith replies "Janusz, we're already dying."  Ed Harris delivers the line with matter-of-fact sincerity and an imploring expression that says "Can't you see it?  Can't you understand?"

But, apart from Harris, the rest of the cast was mediocre.  I generally dislike it when actors deliver lines in English with affected accents, and Collin Farrell brought that home to me with his goofy Boris Badenov impression.  Further, I thought the script was poorly written.  The characters were shallow stereotypes:  the Joker, the Sensitive Artist, the Cranky Cook. 

I'll give him this:  Peter Weir knows his target audience and he never diverts from his straight-on drive to appeal to it.  The inclusion of Irena (Ronan) seemed little more than a sop to the female component of the audience.  Although the subject-matter of the film (a Soviet gulag) has the potential for real drama, Weir puts a soft focus on everything.  The film does nothing to convey the real horror of the gulag; the privations of the escapees are under-played, as if dying of thirst is little worse than having chapped lips.

Well, it's probably true that leisurely Saturday afternoon movie-goers, out to have a nice time with their spouses, don't want to be subjected to a depiction of what really went on in Soviet gulags.  Nor do they care to think about the reality of death due to starvation or dehydration.  Not to worry.  Weir handles everything gently. 

I came away from the film underwhelmed.  The denouement was absurdly brief.  The characters were not memorable. 

This wasn't a bad film, but I would probably have been better off following the advice of respected friends and going to see The King's Speech instead.

Peter Weir has made some good flicks (Gallipoli, Dead Poets Society) and some mildly entertaining diversions (Master and Commander, The Truman Show).  The Way Back belongs in the latter category.

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