Sunday, July 3, 2011

THE WAY BACK (2010) - Review

Peter Weir has never been interested in making epic movies for the sake of visually spectacular filmmaking. His movies are always about the characters, featuring profound and vivid characterizations, echoed by the events unfold on-screen. "Gallipoli", "Master and Commander", "Dead Poets Society", "Truman Show" are movies with strong characters and powerful underlying themes.

"The Way Back" is the kind of project a director like Weir feels at home with, the true story of seven Syberian gulag prisoners who escape in 1940 during a snow storm and walk 6,400 km, across Mongolia, China, Tibet, through the Himalayas and into India. Not your average walk in the park. It has an epic scope, with the movie taking us through so many different environments and situations as the characters struggle to survive both nature and man, but Weir's focus is on character developement.

Unfortunately, the characterizations are not really as vivid as in Weir's previous movies, partly because it has to deal with so many characters constantly in focus at the same time. Jim Sturgess plays the protagonist of the story, a decent young man who was imprisoned by the soviets after they tortured his wife to make her testify against him. He's the core of the movie, leading the ensemble of actors and holding the moral compass of the movie in his hands. Ed Harris' wonderful performance as the cynical american prisoner becomes part of the movie's emotional core and he's used to great effect in a couple of scenes. Colin Farrel's raggedy thug is a colorful character, but not very memorable, apart from his occasional overacting. Saoirse Ronan proves once again that she has a bright future in cinema, but, her character, a young girl the group meets in Russia some time after their escape, is used as a sort of probe into each character's backstory, as she inquires a lot and helps the men know more about each other. Her role in the move quickly becomes nothing more than a screenplay writing gimmick. Dragos Bucur is also effective as Zoran, an accountant and funny man of the seven. The director cleverly avoids using him as comic relief. He cracks jokes, but you don't get the feeling that they're meant to be one-liners. He simply lightens the mood a bit, and they sure need it.

The stronger side of the movie is the cinematography by Russel Boyd. "The Way Back" is like a collection of nature postcards and the fact that the movie is produced by National Geographic comes to no surprise. Your eyes will feast on everything the movie has to offer. The other strong technical aspect is the makeup, nominated for an Academy Award this year. Frostbite, chapped lips, rashes and wounds, all form a terribly accurate account of what the human body has to endure during a 6,400 km walk through the most unforgiving landscapes imaginable. Which is why the MPAA included the following reasoning for its PG-13 rating : "depiction of physical hardships".

So, to sum it up, Weir's movie is a competent epic from a technical point of view and the acting is on par. The weaker side of the movie comes from the script, that seemed to have a hard time juggling the survival story and the characters at the same time. The story is certainly strong enough to sell itself, but the lack of stronger character portraits in a movie like this means that the viewer is left without an emotional anchor throughout the events, which consequently leaves the viewer too far outside the events. Still, this an incredible story which in turn becomes a fine adventure movie, not entirely memorable, but well made and worthwhile.

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