To list the great films by Peter Weir is a boggling enterprise. He first came onto my personal radar as an art-film maker, a la Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave, movies I saw in my own personal coming-of-age in college.
He’s gone on to make a dozen or more films to critical acclaim, like Dead Poets Society, Witness and the entertaining but fatally-flawed The Truman Show. And then, of course there’s the heart-breaking Gallipoli, which I somehow did not manage to see until the summer of 2008, 27 years after its release.
His most recent film, released in 2003, was Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, starred Russell Crowe.
So it’s been seven years or more, and suddenly a new film by Weir has sneaked its way onto local screens.
Released in 2010, and just now showing (and probably not for long, given the paucity of movie-goers the night I attended), The Way Back tells the “inspired by true events” tale of a group of prisoners who escape from a Siberia gulag during WWII — and walk 4000 miles to freedom.
You read that right: 4000 miles.
I knew nothing about the film, save for the fact that it starred Colin Farrell and Ed Harris, which is usually a pretty good indication of watchability. And the film does not disappoint; in fact it’s enthralling. Now, it befuddles at times: the escape from the gulag is confusing; and a pivotal scene toward the end concerning the make-up of the escapees is botched, and there’s the necessarily-hasty march-thru-time passage at the end, so it’s not a perfect film by any means.
But it is essential viewing, whether you’re a Weir fan, a WWII enthusiast or simply following the extraordinary careers of Harris or Farrell or, in the lead role, Jim Sturgess.
Colin Farrell is mighty good in this film, his best performance since the under-appreciated In Bruges. He plays Valka, a criminal who ends up the gulag in Siberia, despite his tattooed support of Lenin and Stalin. He’s as menacing a character as he’s ever played, and keeps the tension of the film going, even as the “good guys” have made their escape and are facing the “bad guys” of 4000 miles of inhospitable landscapes.
Ed Harris is brilliant as well, playing an American imprisoned by the Russians, because they “don’t like foreigners.” He’s an outcast, being the only American, and watching his growing bond with the Poles (led by Jim Sturgess in a starring role) is touching to behold.
Sturgess is terrific; my first encounter with his talent. I in fact thought Weir, who plays on such a global scale as a director, had simply found one of Poland’s most accomplished actors for the key performance. Sturgess is indeed a Brit, who’s starred in Across the Universe and 21.
And then there’s Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, The Lovely Bones), who stars as the Polish girl, Irena, whom the escaping men find along their way. Irena ends up tying the desperate men together into a community by getting them to share their personal narratives. As the movie unfolds, it does so more deeply, because of Irena, and how she causes the men to become more deeply involved with each other.
The journey takes a toll on them all, especially Irena. In fact, this film has to have employed the most expert make up artists in the business. The trek across the desert is mesmerizing and painful — and due to the realism of the make-up, not a little horrifying.
The Way Back is a stark reminder of a totalitarian time in our recent history, where millions were imprisoned, murdered, ripped from their everyday world. It’s a tale, too, of courage and perseverance, as inspiring as anything you’ll see this season.Check local showtimes using the movie listings search or by clicking here.