Monday, April 18, 2011

The Way Back Movie Review

“Based on the book” is a phrase sometimes applied loosely to films. “Inspired by” is a somewhat more accurate albeit much more imprecise expression of the basis for source material. Still more liberally invoked in cinema is “based on a true story.” In Peter Weir’s The Way Back we have a film that is very loosely based on the book The Long Walk, purportedly presenting a true story, the veracity of which has been called into doubt on several occasions.

None of that should really matter because when we watch a film we should be judging it on its own merits and not on whether it’s similar to the book or not, or if it’s a true story. But the problem is that presenting your film up front as being based in fact tends to color the audience’s judgment of the events depicted.

The Way Back is the highly improbably story of a group of men who escape from a Siberian gulag and trek on foot some 4,000 miles to India. Look at a topographical map to see what stands in the way. The old adage, “Never get involved in a land war in Asia” comes from the fact that the vast majority of the area is completely unusable including frozen tundra, scorching desert and impassable mountains. All of which make for some eye-popping cinematography that demands to be seen on the big screen, but a rather far-fetched plot.

In the opening scene we see Janusz (Jim Sturgess) accused of crimes against the Soviet people. His wife is brought in as the witness against him. Janusz’s horrified look at first suggests disbelief at her turning against him, but then he asks, “What have they done to you?” The next time we see Janusz he is entering his Siberian prison with several dozen other new arrivals, all of whom are warned that their prison is not the fence, but rather Siberia itself, whose weather conditions are punishing. And as if that weren’t enough, the locals are happy to chase the bounties on the heads of all fugitives. Now the perils of escape have been established, all we have to do is wait for the event and ensuing journey.

Janusz befriends Khabarov (Mark Strong), who may know a way out of the prison, but hasn’t escaped before now because he needs someone younger, stronger and more full of optimism to help him. Together they figure they can walk several hundred kilometers to Lake Baikal, travel southward along the lakeshore, and then cross the border into Mongolia and freedom. There’s also an American known only as Mr. Smith and played by Ed Harris. He warns Janusz that kindness will get him killed in the gulag. Life in the prison might be marginally easier and certainly much safer if political prisoners were the only ones to contend with, but professional criminals make up a forceful contingent, being given free rein to run things how they see fit. Colin Farrell plays Valka, one such man who has very bad luck at gambling and worries that his increasing debts will get him killed eventually.

The atmosphere of the gulag is quite similar to how I imagined it reading Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a detailed account of the hardships of living in a Siberian labor camp. Weir and his production team get the details right, I think: the huddled prisoners trying to find warmth where they can; the desperation at getting any tiny nibble of bread or soup; and the harsh working conditions in which men literally freeze to death on their feet.

Eventually Janusz makes his escape along with Valka, Smith (­­who notes that he’s going along because he’s counting on Janusz’s kindness to compel him to carry him when the going gets toughest), and four other men. The beginning of the film informs us that in 1941 three men walked out of the Himalayas into India, so we know that four of the men who started this journey won’t see it through to the end. We may make assumptions based on the casting and who we believe are the main characters, but the plot carries some reasonable surprises.

Once the escape party gets moving across the rugged frozen wasteland of Siberia, things get a little more interesting. What the screenplay by Weir and Keith R. Clarke does best presenting the plight of the escapees as arduous, tedious and necessary. This is the rare script that wisely avoids the big emotional clichés. There is little sentiment built up and manufactured in the dialogue between the men. It is simple, utilitarian, spare. They barely take the time to get to know one another. Unfortunately, Janusz’s real motivation for escaping and then continuing across the Himalayas in winter when they have a cozy Tibetan monastery as sanctuary is forced and handled quite clumsily, leading to a final coda that doesn’t play well. It doesn’t fit tonally with the rest of the film and adds that sentimentality they’d worked so hard to avoid for the first two hours.

The task of getting to know the men is accomplished by Irena (Saoirse Ronan), a young orphan girl they pick up in their travels. Her role as the go-between provides a respite from the dour mood. She gathers personal information from the men and passes it on to the others, who are obviously interested and curious, but perhaps too stoic and focused to bother asking themselves. I was disappointed that we didn’t get to witness her methods for finessing background information out of Smith, who up to that point had been a man of few words.

Again, as we know from the beginning that three men will make it to India, we wait in anticipation for Irena’s fate. Her role as a sort of redeemer for the party and the occasional symbolic moments (she washes Smith’s feet at one point and later is carried through the desert after suffering physical torment from heat exhaustion) feels a bit heavy-handed and it I kept wondering how it was possible the subject of sex never arose in a scenario involving several lonely men and beautiful young woman.

The pain and suffering of the party is palpable, one of the finest accomplishments of the film. First they face freezing cold and near starvation, but miraculously find Lake Baikal. Later, they are on the brink of crossing into Mongolia and what they believe is freedom only to find an archway on the border with an image of Stalin. They are surprised to find that Mongolia is also Communist. I’m not sure how, in 1940, they would have been completely unaware of that fact as Mongolia fell into Communism in the early 30s, but never mind. Then they have to cross the Gobi, nearly dying of dehydration before finding a well, and then again before reaching the hills and sucking drops of water from a small mud hole. When I think of great cinematic scenes of desert dehydration, Lawrence of Arabia is the first that comes to mind. The Way Back will now be the second.

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