Monday, January 17, 2011

THE WAY BACK opens: Peter Weir's best in a long while is awards-caliber film-making

You couldn't ask for a simpler premise. A small group of men plan and execute an escape from a Russian gulag in Siberia during World War II. Because they cannot safely end up in either Hitler's German-occupied nor Stalin's soon-to-be USSR-occupied territories, they must walk until they reach a place under the control of Allied forces. This means from Siberia to India. Along the way, a very young woman joins them. That's it. Yet in Peter Weir's lengthy (it's two-and-one-quarter hours) new film, THE WAY BACK, there's not a moment that's slow or boring. That in itself is a major accomplishment, yet Weir, shown below, goes much farther.

To begin with, this is indeed a great story: surprising, exciting, moving, even profound. Mr. Weir gives it its due via a wondrous accretion of on-the-mark detail, terrific performances from his first-rate cast, and some of the most stunning location photography seen in years (using locations chosen, I would guess, for their oddness, as well as for their sometimes great beauty and immense contrasts: snowy forests with deserts, caves with river landscapes). This notable Australian director (and here co-writer with Keith R. Clarke, from a novel based on real events by Slavomir Rawicz) -- after giving us films of varied importance and success (Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave on his home turf, through Witness and Dead Poet's Society, to The Truman Show and Master and Commander) -- has created an old-fashioned movie done spectacularly well that is up there with -- and maybe is -- the best film of the year. (It opened at the end of 2010 in Los Angeles for award consideration.)

Weir understands the importance of pacing, too. In a film that is basically an early-on escape followed by one long jaunt, he sees to it that we're kept alert by events, small and large, and by his wonderful eye for detail.  The opening scene in an interrogator's office quickly sets up the entire movie, and the following scenes in the gulag (one of which is shown above) are full of precise detail done so subtly and quickly that it all becomes a mass of complete reality. Once we're on the trek, the detailing is handled just as well A word should be said for the make-up, too (the IMDB lists ten people as part of this crew), which may be the best I've ever seen: the dirt, cuts, bruises, swellings and face and body distortions brought on by the elements, hunger and constant walking add immeasurably to the truth of each moment.

The cast of basically eight principals (plus Mark Strong in yet another fine supporting role) could not be better. Jim Sturgess, below, center, and above, second from left) earns one more feather in his cap, proving himself capable of a very good eastern-European accent throughout, as the default leader of the little group. And as usual, Sturgess offers that unique quality of his -- kindness and strength coupled to hesitation -- that draws you to him, even in a role as odd as that of Heartless, his most recent film. Ed Harris, left), as the oldest member of the group, brings his usual authority and strength, along with his sublime taciturnity.

Colin Farrell (above, right) begins as a creep, through whom a bit of humanity -- we see this as the film progresses -- still flows. Weir has long been one of our most humane filmmakers. Given the opportunity, he'll help us understand how situations and events create -- or close off -- the opportunity for a humane response. Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, The Lovely Bones) has the most difficult role -- a girl/woman in the midst of all this?  Please! -- and she makes the most of it, while also making it completely believable: no small feat.

As to those locations (seen above and below), they add immeasurably to the film's richness and to our enjoyment. As our group trudges onward, with some attrition along the way, one and then another departs. The sense of loss we feel strikes surprisingly deep, so indelible have these characters become.

The supporting cast includes Dragos Bucur (Police, Adjective), Alexandru Potocean (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), Sebastian Urzendowsky (A Woman in Berlin) and Gustaf Skarsgård (yes, Stellan's son, most recently seen here in Patrik, Age 1.5). All give equally fine performances -- a testament to their skill, along with the abilities of Weir and his casting director, Lina Todd.

The Way Back, which should elect a few happy sighs of "I didn't think they made 'em like that anymore!", begins its nationwide opening this Friday, January 21 and will expand further in the weeks to come. Click here to find a city and theater near you.

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